The first-person approach to documentary narration is often more distracting than useful, but Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s decision to be the voices for their documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe makes sense, because the dramatic arc of the film has partly to do with how they reconciled with their father’s legacy. Born in the ’70s to William Kunstler’s second wife, the filmmakers missed most of their old man’s glory years as a civil-rights lawyer, and instead grew up as he was representing rapists, drug dealers, mobsters, and terrorists, and gaining a reputation as an opportunist who used increasingly arcane self-justifications for his love of being on the front page. The filmmakers talk to people like Alan Dershowitz, who disagreed vehemently with Kunstler’s choice of defendants, and when those interviewees make their case, they call him “your dad.” So it would be disingenuous for Emily and Sarah Kunstler to pretend that this movie isn’t personal.
In fact, the major flaw with William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe is that it isn’t more personal. From the moody instrumental-rock score to the this-follows-that biographical approach to Kunstler’s life, Disturbing The Universe takes a conventional path through an unconventional story. Kunstler spent most of the ’50s as a successful suburban lawyer/husband/father, writing books on accident law and hobnobbing with the powerful, before he made his name as a defender of the Freedom Riders, the Chicago Seven, the prisoners at Attica, and the American Indian Movement. His daughters use file footage and interviews to document, perhaps too doggedly, Kunstler’s radicalization, and how he took on ever-more-controversial cases because he believed the whole system was flawed.
But Disturbing The Universe doesn’t mix it up enough. It’s one thing to show Kunstler giving a speech in which he contends that “legal” does not equal “right,” or to hear how he once explained borderline-unethical courtroom tactics by saying, “Everything is jury-tampering,” but it’s quite another to grapple with the long-term impact of those philosophies. Emily and Sarah Kunstler ultimately conclude that their father was often right and sometimes wrong, but that he was basically a good man with noble goals. That’s a hard point to dispute. But what does that mean, to the Kunstler family and to the legal profession? On that point, Disturbing The Universe is frustratingly hesitant to judge.