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Originally published Thursday, November 19, 2009 at 3:54 PM

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Movie review

Film is daughters' homage to radical lawyer William Kunstler

"William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" is an honest and emotionally complex documentary from Sarah and Emily Kunstler, daughters of the late defense attorney, who attempt to separate the legend from the father they knew.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 4 stars

'William Kunstler: Defending the Universe,' a documentary with William Kunstler, Harry Belafonte, Daniel Berrigan, Jimmy Breslin. Directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler, from a screenplay by Sarah Kunstler. 90 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences. Varsity.

In the second half of the 20th century, attorney William Kunstler was a hero to many who embraced progressive and radical politics in the United States.

Abandoning small-business law in the late 1950s, he became fearlessly involved in defending civil-rights advocates the following decade. Kunstler used the courtroom to wage war against racism and, later, other excesses of power.

That chapter of his life and many others are included in the thoughtful and, in some ways, provocative documentary "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," a portrait of a man reviled by some and admired by others.

During the 1960s and '70s, Kunstler became closely associated with dramatic battles between government at all levels and activists of all stripe. In 1969, he defended the Chicago Eight against the charge of inciting riots during the previous year's Democratic National Convention. Four years later, he represented American Indian Movement co-founders Russell Means and Dennis Banks in their trial for the occupation of Wounded Knee.

Kunstler's accomplishments, principles and courage are all here in "Disturbing the Universe." But there is something else that adds an unexpected layer of emotional complexity.

Directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler, Kunstler's daughters from his second marriage, the film is also an attempt by its makers to separate the legend from the father they knew. The aging Kunstler who settled in New York to raise a young family was no longer an obvious darling of the liberal set but rather a defender of less-sympathetic clients: a drug dealer charged with killing six cops in the Bronx; the assassin of Rabbi Meir Kahane; one of the accused rapists of the Central Park jogger. (The latter, Yusef Salaam, was exonerated and released following a seven-year appeal.)

Emily and Sarah grew up not in the old, warm glow of admiration heaped on Kunstler but instead facing the wrath of New Yorkers who vilified him. As second acts go, Kunstler's drew scorn and threats toward his daughters.

This moving and fascinating documentary is an honest effort to present both a collective and personal history of a man whose most controversial work puzzled his frightened children. For them, "Disturbing the Universe" is not only an accomplished film but good therapy.

Tom Keogh:

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