Family ties help and hinder Emily and Sarah Kunstler's docu portrait of their confoundingly chameleonic lawyer dad.

Family ties help and hinder “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s docu portrait of their confoundingly chameleonic lawyer dad, who died in 1995 after defending everyone from the Chicago 8 to the terrorist accused of bombing the World Trade Center in ’93. Pic’s historical collage includes footage showing the co-directors as precociously inquisitive interviewers of their father from childhood. But in attempting to address its subject’s ideological discrepancies, “Kunstler” lacks the objectivity needed to put the lawyer’s shift from ’60s fist-pumper to ’80s and ’90s headline-grabber in proper context.

The siblings have grappled more meaningfully with their dad’s flamboyant contradictions in print than in this film, which, as narrated by younger Emily, concludes mainly that the lawyer became addicted to his own celebrity. Archival images of Kunstler agitating like David against Goliath on behalf of Mississippi Freedom Riders, Yippie activists, Attica prisoners and Wounded Knee victims are stunning, though there’s little onscreen or the soundtrack to portray the dozen-odd years preceding the lawyer’s 1989 defense of a cop-killing drug dealer. Those interested in U.S. social history will want to catch the pic’s forthcoming broadcasts on PBS nonetheless.

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Production

An Off Center Media production, in association with Chicken & Egg Pictures and ITVS. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Jesse Moss, Susan Korda, Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler. Executive producers, Vanessa Wanger, Sally Jo Fifer. Directed by Emily Kunstler, Sarah Kunstler. Written by Sarah Kunstler.

Crew

Camera (DV), Brett Wiley, Martina Radwan; editor, Emily Kunstler; music, Shahzad Ismaily. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 16, 2009. Running time: 85 MIN.
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