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William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe (DVD Review)

26 Apr, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 4/27/10
New Video
Box Office $0.05 million
$29.95 DVD
Not rated.

It’s a reasonable assumption that being called the most hated man in America (or most loved, depending on the caller) can both stroke and stoke an ego, giving it an unquenchable thirst for the limelight. This is a major sub-theme in a documentary about his era’s most fiery defense lawyer, William Kunstler, one fashioned by his co-directing daughters Emily and Sarah Kunstler.

Such close proximity to a project can cut both ways: archival access and insights unavailable to outsiders versus a potential lack of perspective. Yet the latter pitfall is largely dodged by siblings who weren’t even born in their father’s late-1960s and early ’70s heyday, when he defending the famed Chicago Seven (aka Eight) anti-war protestors; the similarly motivated Catonsville Nine defendants; the hostage-taking inmates at Attica Prison; and the Native American defendants who took on the government at Wounded Knee, SD.

Once living comfortably in New York’s Westchester County, Kunstler was a general-practice lawyer who got his feet wet during the early-1960s portion of the civil rights movement before earning notorious fame and a behemoth contempt citation (eventually overturned) defending the Seven-Eight on a conspiracy charge emanating from events at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

The trial’s Ringling Brothers atmosphere, which sparked the combustive reaction of aged Judge Julius Hoffman, was vitally covered in 2007’s Chicago 10 (a tally reached when you total No. 8 Bobby Seale, who was eventually jettisoned from the trial, and the two defense lawyers equally under the Hoffman gun). Which is why it’s not a major disappointment that this part of the story isn’t the documentary’s (expected) high point.

Instead, it’s the Attica and Wounded Knee portions that prove most compelling — one key segment being Kunstler’s self-flagellation over his failure (naively or otherwise) to warn the Attica prisoners that authorities weren’t willing to negotiate and, on the contrary, would react with massive force.

Later — and this is also compelling in a different way — Kunstler went from this relatively lofty plane to defending terrorist El Sayyid Nossair, admitted cop killer Larry Davis and 'A'-team hood John Giotti. His daughters, who were around for all this, grew up regularly seeing protestors outside their door, which certainly brings a dimension to this story that an outside filmmaker probably couldn’t match. Both began to wonder if dad coveted celebrity (no matter what kind) a little too much.

Of course, you don’t get to be a prime civil libertarian by defending Bert and Ernie from some Sesame Street scrape, and, indeed, one of Kunstler’s most suspect clients (from the horrific Central Park rapist episode) was later cleared years after the fact. Just on Miranda principles alone, Kunstler’s actions are easier to defend than those of hero-to-bum and too perennial presidential candidate Ralph Nader, who was the subject of an even better and structurally comparable documentary (2006’s An Unreasonable Man) — which, to me is one of the most underrated movies of any kind from the past five years.

The DVD extras are superb and include footage from Attica that’s gritty enough to be out of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers; home movies (including “fun stuff” with the then young sisters); and a college commencement speech in Buffalo (just four months before his 1995 death) in which Kunstler called Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America case of lunatics taking over the asylum.

Even more special is a funny comedy club appearance he made less than a month before he died — where Kunstler claims that Judge Hoffman never got it straight what defense witness Country Joe McDonald’s last name actually was. Hoffman thought it was “Joe.”

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