Other than a few tasty tidbits, like the fact that he wrote Joseph McCarthy's will while still a young family attorney, there's not much fresh news about William Kunstler in this documentary. Plodding diligently through the irascible lefty lawyer's career, Disturbing the Universe travels from his radicalization during the trial of the Chicago Eight, through his long roster of civil-rights cases, to his defense of alleged rapists and assassins that cost him the support of many former admirers. What makes the film fascinating is the anguished dance around hagiography performed by two of his daughters, who wrote, directed, and narrated the movie. Born when he was close to 60 years old and now in their early 30s, Emily and Sarah Kunstler want to know whether their late father was a lone fighter for social justice or a narcissist so addicted to the media spotlight that he was willing to take on "some very bad people." Well, both, of course, but the film shows how tough it was to be the children of a Biblically charismatic persuader (his idol was Michelangelo's David) who found the sound of his own orating voice irresistible. He wasn't alone—up pops Alan Dershowitz, proud defender of Claus von Bülow and other notable sleazebags, to needle Kunstler for taking on unworthy cases. Kettle, meet pot.
Future director Sarah Kunstler with her famous father.
Runs at Varsity, Fri., Nov. 20–Thurs., Nov. 26. Not rated. 90 minutes.