WILLIAM KUNSTLER: DISTURBING THE UNIVERSE - DVD review

Kunstler was a master of judicial theater.

csjlong's picture
Christopher
Long

"I want a fuckin' lawyer, man. I want Bill Kunstler or Ron Kuby."

So said The Dude when interrogated by the fascist Malibu Police Chief, and anyone who The Dude holds in esteem is somebody we all need to take seriously.

In "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," Emily and Sarah Kunstler examine the private and public life of their father, the famous lawyer who found himself Forrest Gump-like at the heart of many of America's most pivotal protests in the 1960s and 1970s. Kunstler was one of the Freedom Riders, he defended the Chicago 8 (not to be confused with The Dude's Seattle Seven), negotiated at Attica, and helped to represent the American Indian Movement at the Wounded Knee standoff in 1973-74. Kunstler was a firebrand and an unabashed publicity hound. When he received a record-breaking sentence for contempt of court in the Chicago 8 case, he used it to burnish his already growing, if not always glowing, reputation as a radical icon.

Kunstler was in his 50s when filmmaker Emily and Sarah were born and was already a star. The girls initially saw their father as "a hero born from legend," a view probably shared by Kunstler himself, and one that he propagated on any talk show that was willing to book him. But they soon grew concerned when they saw that their father was defending "bad people." In the 80s and 90s, Kunstler surprised and angered many of his supporters by defending controversial figures such as the accused mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and Yusef Salaam, one of five young men accused of the headline-grabbing Central Park Jogger rape case in 1989.

One of the most pronounced recent trends in documentary is the use of the medium as a form of public therapy. Emily and Sarah mix archival footage with interviews they conduct with colleagues and clients of their father to try to come to terms with their conflicted views about him. Their quest for understanding leads to some uncomfortable moments (Alan Dershowitz tells them point blank that he thought their father was a hypocrite) and helps provide a narrative backbone for the film, but doesn't lead to much insight. The concluding realization that at least one of the "bad men" (Salaam) they didn't want dad to defend was innocent feels like a forced and pre-determined closure. The frequent use of bland newspaper headline/news feed montages also undermines the personal approach the daughters adopt.

The film is more successful at providing a public portrait of the man who courted controversy both because he was a genuine believer in his clients and their causes, and because he wanted to further his career. Kunstler was a master of "judicial theater," treating the courtroom as a stage rather than a solemn, sanctified institution impervious to dissent or criticism. And he sure as hell knew how to play to the rafters. The documentary does a fine job of capturing his larger than life personality. Younger viewers unfamiliar with William Kunstler will understand why he was, for a while, the most famous American lawyer this side of Perry Mason.

And, oh yes, Ron Kuby shows up too. The Dude would be proud.

VIDEO

The film is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. The interlaced transfer is solid overall though the image quality obviously varies with the use of different archival sources.

AUDIO

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. It's a straightforward audio mix and all of the dialogue is clearly audible. No optional subtitles are provided though some subtitles are provided in the film when archival audio sources are somewhat garbled.

EXTRAS

85 minutes of Audio Files include three recordings from the Pacifica Radio Archives (one in which Kunstler discusses the Chicago 9, two featuring Kunstler from Wounded Knee in 1973 and 1974) and one from the KCSB 91.9F, Archives a 44 minute speech by Kunstler delivered at U.C. Santa Barbara on Feb 26, 1970. There are also several shorter audio clips from the Chicago 8 Courtroom Audio including testimony by Bobby Seale.

The disc also offers 91 minutes of Bonus Footage including Attica Siege Footage, Kunstler speaking at SUNY Buffalo on 5/13/95 and Kunstler at Caroline's Comedy Club on 8/10/95 shortly before his death. This section also includes two brief Home Movies from the Kunstler family and an interview with Emily and Sarah on "Democracy Now!"

The disc also includes a Trailer and several web links.

FILM VALUE

The film begins with Emily and Sarah Kunstler's childhood impression of their father as "a hero born from legend." Though the documentary ostensibly shows William Kunstler warts and all, it doesn't do much to question his "heroic" status. And that's OK. If Emily and Sarah Kunstler achieve any personal realizations through their filmmaking, it's that dads should be heroes whenever possible. Even if they defended "bad men."

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
7
Extras
7
Film Value
6