It’s uncertain at the outset whether William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe will chart an evolution or devolution in the career of the late civil rights attorney, as the filmmakers—his daughters Emily (narration) and Sarah (script), co-directing—begin their documentary by chronicling the seemingly headline-chasing cases that dominated his last years as a criminal lawyer in New York City. Kunstler’s clients included a murder suspect who wounded seven cops in a shootout, the Palestinian assassin of a Zionist extremist, and the demonized “wolfpack” teenagers in the 1989 rape and beating of a Central Park jogger. His pubescent daughters, the product of their father’s second marriage after his radicalization, shook their heads at his embrace of mob don John Gotti before TV cameras and wondered if he’d lost his mind as well as his idealism.
Chronologically backtracking, with home movies and other familial touches sometimes awkwardly inserted, the film finds the origins of Kunstler’s anti-establishment rage for justice in his wounding by bayonet in WWII’s Pacific theater; he saw his young, Empire-serving Japanese assailant immediately cut down by a comrade. Yet his early legal career was that of a comfortable suburban armchair liberal (albeit one who quietly represented black families seeking to live in the all-white enclave of Kennedy-era Westchester), authoring a book on accident law and drafting a will for Joe McCarthy. After joining the ACLU and representing Freedom Riders and draft-card burners, Kunstler enjoyed a rise to national fame (which interviewees note he relished) in the outrageously theatrical trial of the Chicago Seven in 1969-70, which was soon followed by his failure to successfully stave off a massacre of inmates and guards in the Attica prison uprising and then his victorious defense of Native American activists who occupied Wounded Knee, S.D.
There’s nothing the Kunstler sisters can offer in the way of psychohistory or intimate analysis that can compete with this arc of passion put into crusading action; archival history like a state policeman bellowing “White Power!” after the bloody climax of Attica is the crux of their father’s life and its meaning. Those who know that five of the Central Park defendants were exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence can partly anticipate William Kunstler’s resolution of its subject’s late-life tabloid-case phase, but his oft-spoken use of Michelangelo’s David as a personal symbol of the individual’s decision to bring “power to the people” gives better insight into this jurist’s fiery heart than any case study.