(directors: Emily and Sarah Kunstler; screenwriter: Sarah Kunstler; cinematographers: Brett Wiley/Martina Radwan; editor: Emily Kunstler; music: Shahzad Ismaily; Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Emily Kunstler/Sarah Kunstler/Jesse Moss/Susan Korda; Arthouse Films; 2009)

“Tries to examine and then reconcile Kunstler’s legacy as a fighter for causes with his choosing to defend mobsters, terrorists, rapists and drug dealers.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Emily and Sarah Kunstler, born in the 1970s to their famous dad’s second wife,also a radical lawyer,direct and provide the narration to try and explain in a thoughtful and lucid manner their controversial liberal-radical lawyer father William Kunstler–someone they were proud of when he fought for causes but sometimes disagreed with him when he defended some really bad characters.

The only thing I learned about the glory-seeking defender lawyer of unpopular clients, whose legacy is well-publicized for his passion for helping the oppressed, is that this self-serving homage by his sweet daughters pointed out that their dad when a young tax lawyer drew up the will of the notorious right-wing Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The doc tries to examine and then reconcile Kunstler’s legacy as a fighter for causes with his choosing to defend mobsters, terrorists, rapists and drug dealers, and tries to convince us the girls’ dad was really a good guy despite several lapses in judgment (it asks if you can really be a good guy lawyer if you use your talent to free violent clients who are guilty, and answers by saying everyone needs representation to get a fair trial). In his later years, even many in the liberal community soured on Kunstler as being an opportunist who wanted most of all to have his name kept on the front pages. Kunstler died in 1995 from a heart attack.

In a conventional format, brilliantly using archival footage, the film traces Kunstler’s early days in the 1950s living in suburban Westchester County and writing a book on accident law. Things changed in the 1960s for when he accepted the challenge to defend the southern Freedom Riders for the ACLU. Kunstler received everlasting fame in 1969 as the lawyer in the Chicago 10 conspiracy trial. Later he moved to a brownstone in Greenwich Village, and considered himself radicalized. While living there he tried unsuccessfully in 1971 to negotiate a settlement as an observer in favor of the prisoners who took over Attica and successfully defended in 1973 members of AIM (an Indian activist group who were in a standoff with federal troops on the reservation at Wounded Knee, demanding native rights). In 1989 Kunstler defended the black ‘wilding’ rapists of the white Central Park jogger. He also successfully defended Larry Davis, who killed a number of police in a Bronx shoot-out, and the Egyptian-born American citizen El-SayyidNosair who assassinated the radical right-wing Rabbi Meir Kahane in NYC (which got him accused by some in the Jewish community of being a self-hating Jew). Kunstler was also the lawyer for terrorists such as “The blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel-Rahman, involved in planning the 1993 bombing attack on the World Trade Center.

Kunstler turns out to be a flawed character who goes from acting on his knee-jerk liberal guilt feelings to becoming an important selfless spokesman for human rights causes and an advocate for ‘power to the people.’ Though that latter selfless image is suspect, as possibly being too manufactured to be entirely true. This personal doc doesn’t bring us any closer to understanding the tireless champion of causes, but does provide a good history lesson into many of the controversial issues of the last century. What’s needed is a more probing look at Kunstler, something his daughters tried to do but didn’t go far enough. They didn’t have the heart to and therefore couldn’t cut too deeply into their family blood-lines. Their dad could get pumped up for battle by using Michelangelo’s David statue as a personal model for how to act in life; that is, to be willing to be an underdog to fight his powerful enemies despite the consequences.

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe Poster