William Kunstler
Apparently, it’s “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” at the law office.

Theatrical Release Date: 01/15/2009
Directors: Emily & Sarah Kunstler

These days, it’s hard to think of many high profile lawyers. Not since the O.J. trial have I really heard of any and even then, well-known lawyers seemed to be little more than those the wealthy accused called to escape jail time for one thing or another. Gone, it seems, are the outspoken orators with law degrees challenging the system and righting the wrongs.

William Kunstler was one such man and he made a name for himself as an activist, defending people who were against the Vietnam War, those seeking to confront the U.S. government when they may have overstepped their bounds and taking part in a number of high profile civil rights cases. However, once he moved back to New York and remarried, adding two new daughters to his family tree (directors Emily & Sarah), he mainly stuck to criminal defense and represented alleged mobsters, murderers and rapists. It’s this shift in caseload that brought a fair amount of peer pressure on the family and made his family wonder whether this social crusader wanted little more than the spotlight.

All of this is now the subject of a documentary, “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe”. Thanks to his daughters handling the directing duties, the film contains not only loads of interesting archival footage but also some home movies. This kind of access is nice to have, as it helps to flesh out the man behind the persona, but it also highlights the biggest element of the film that didn’t work for me: its focus. Is this supposed to be about Kunstler and his exploits, or the daughters’ hopes to understand their father? The film went back and forth with those purposes and it made for some uneven storytelling.

Now, as someone in their lower 30s, I’m only peripherally aware of Kunstler’s legacy. As the film detailed certain cases, I realized that I knew of those events in U.S. history, but not the lawyer so involved in them. And nothing the Kunstler daughters did managed to make myself very interested in Kunstler as a person. The daughters explain that the film is an attempt to reconcile whether their father was a hypocrite for defending the clients he did towards the latter end of his law career.

More power to them, I applaud their effort (though not their bland narration) and I can definitely see this appealing to audiences more familiar with Kunstler. As such, “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” gets a 3 out of 5. I found it to be lacking in energy at times and struggled a little to keep my eyes open here or there but as a fan of history, I’m pleased to know more about the rather interesting part he played in some of America’s key moments of the mid-20th century.