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I missed this film when it showed last year, but someone called my attention to it and I found it on Netflix Instant Play. Kuntsler was an ubiquitous figure in the legal battles of American in the second half of the twentieth century and absolutely central to the world of social and political action of the Sixties and the Seventies. When I was young and first living in California in those days, it seemed few important controversies came up without the involvement of William Kuntsler. He was the number one civil rights lawyer, synonymous with civil rights. It's seemed essential to hear his name in relation to any important political case. I love the lady from Des Plains in this film who was on the Chicago Seven trial jury and saus she learned to dislike her government when she saw the humiliating treatment of Bobby Seale in the courtroom. While the Freedom Marches converted Kuntsler into an activist lawyer, Chicago turned him into a leading figure who sought out the trials and issues of the century.
The revolt at Attica ("insurrection" Walter Cronkite calls it) and the subsequent assault and massacre have been covered in more detail in other films. The sisters are with William Kuntsler on that and respectful of the prisoners who lost their lives. This is admirable. Kuntsler was there when anything happened. This kind of person is often controversial. He might seem to be a publicity seeker. He wanted to be where the action was. He was intoxicated with the spirit of the Sixties. The Freedom Riders. The Chicago Seven. Attica. Wounded Knee. The film's coverage of Wounded Knee is very interesting. Fascinating that in his daughter's view, while Attica tore Bill apart, Wounded Knee made him whole again. Each of the major cases touched on in the film is worthy of thorough study, Chicago, Attica, Wounded Knee, the Central Park rape case all are profoundly significant, and Kuntsler was there.
I didn't at first like the way the sisters began, with their disenchantment and their picture of Kunstler's seeming decline in his later years into defending bad people. But then I can see they wanted to put that out of the way, and also prepare us for the arc of his life. After Wounded Knee, an epiphany and climax, there is a certain decline. He defends flag burning before the Supreme Court, but then he is defending rapists and drug dealers. But he is still a great lawyer. The simplicity and clarity of his presentations is impressive. At his funeral Native Americans beat drums and chant in the cathedral.
Was he wrong to defend Nasair, the killer of Rabbi Kahane? Kahane was a hero to Jews, but also an extremist; he appeals to right wing Jews, not liberals. Anyway, everyone has a right to a lawyer. The most dramatic vindication of Kuntsler's seemingly blind defenses of the seemingly indefensible is the vindication of Yusef Salaam, the supposed Central Park "Wolf Pack" rapist who served nearly seven years in prison and then was vindicated. The public, the mayor, Donald Trump, and the cops didn't want to know the facts. The five accused were guilty and should be put away. And then Salaam is vindicated. Nice placement of this information in the film. This is a very well-paced 85 minutes. A good basic introduction to one of the key figures of the law, politics, and society of his period of American life.
But she also tells the story of a man that loves the lime-light and the attention that he was getting from the media. He loved his worked, maybe more then his family at times, and he was very passionate about standing up for his believes and the wrong-doing of those with power towards the ones they could oppress.
It is interesting to watch this media person and how he uses the media and court room like a theater and spins them in his direction.
Kunstler was, of course, the civil rights attorney who became a household name when he served as lead counsel for the Chicago 7 in the late 1960s, an act for which he served several months in prison on charges of "contempt of court," a sentence that was later overturned. But it was this trial - and the obviously unjust way in which the defendants were treated (especially Bobby Seale) - that forever "radicalized" Kunstler, making him see the American legal system as a racist machine hell bent on discriminating against minorities and the poor and those who lacked favor in the eyes of society. After this crucial turning point, Kunstler dedicated his life and his career as a defense attorney to full-time anti-war and civil rights activism, which garnered him the near-constant attention of an ever-suspicious FBI. Kunstler was actively involved in trying to bring peaceful resolutions to the famous standoffs at Attica (where he clearly did not succeed) and Wounded Knee (where he did).
It was in the second half of his career, where, in his capacity as a criminal defense attorney for the city of New York, he began defending some pretty loathsome characters - he is even shown physically embracing John Gotti - that many of his former supporters, including his daughters, began to question his moral convictions. But Kunstler, who died in 1995, always maintained that every person accused of a crime was entitled to a vigorous defense, and it is this philosophy that ultimately won over many of his critics and even his daughters in the end.
A mixture of file footage and interviews with numerous people who both knew Kunstler personally or were deeply affected by his work, the documentary itself is fairly conventional in style and form, but its portrait of a man who insisted, often at great personal risk to himself and his family, that all people be given a fair trial - and of his daughters' growing understanding and eventual acceptance of what he was all about - makes it truly inspiring.