Directed By: Joe Berlinger.
Everyone seems to agree that James “Whitey” Bulger is a multiple murderer – the man ran the Boston underworld for decades, especially after the crackdown on the rival Italian Mafia. Bulger ran everything in Boston, and would kill those who got in his way – and then, right before a long overdue indictment was about to come down in 1995, he fled – remaining at large for 17 years, before finally being arrested and brought back to Boston to stand trial and finally face justice – even if at the age of 83, he isn’t likely to spend much time in jail. Not even Bulger seems to be denying that he is precisely what they are accusing him of being – a gangster who would kill, or arrange to have killed, anyone who got in his way. What is in question – even after the 2013 trial of Bulger – is what role, and what responsibility, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have in Bulger’s crimes. The FBI says that Bulger was an informant for them during the 1980s – and the information they received from him helped to make many arrests, including decimating the Italian Mafia. Bulger, however, claims that he was never an informant for the FBI – and the relationship really went the other way. He paid FBI agents, in particular John Connelly, for information so that he could stay ahead of law enforcement. He also claims he had a deal in place with a former US Attorney, that he wouldn’t charge Bulger with any Federal crimes as long as Bulger protected him. No matter which one is true however, many of the families Bulger’s victims are just as mad at the FBI as they are at Bulger. Why didn’t they arrest him sooner. Why did they do nothing to stop him from killing their family members. Why does it seem like the FBI protected Bulger and didn’t pursue him. Joe Berlinger’s documentary on the subject is a fascinating examination of the ins and outs of the case – and allows everyone to have their say (although the FBI refused to be interviewed, other government officials and prosecutors are interviewed, and call Bulger’s accusations ridiculous).
The effectiveness of the movie is somewhat undercut by the fact that Berlinger has to get almost all of the information from secondhand sources – Bulger's lawyers, or spokespeople, or FBI documents or trial transcripts, as the judge would not allow cameras into the courtroom during the trial. But while the movie certainly would have benefited from more firsthand testimony, the film still does provide a rather comprehensive portrait of government corruption – no matter whether you think Bulger was an informant or not, it is impossible to watch the film and get the impression that the FBI behaved well in this situation – at best, they received bribes from Bulger, gave him information and looked the other way while he was involved in at least 19 murders. To Bulger, the only thing he wanted to prove at trial is that he wasn’t a government informer – and that he didn’t murder the women he was accused of killing. He wants to be seen as an honorable gangster – whatever that is.
The movie is a fascinating portrait of one of America's most notorious true crime stories of the later part of the 20th Century. But because of its limitations, it’s also one of those documentaries that may actually work better as a feature film – which we will apparently get with Johnny Depp playing Bulger. What we do get in Whitey: The United States of America vs. James J. Bulger is fascinating – but I think there`s even more to this story than the movie shows.
NOTE: I saw this film over the weekend when it aired on CNN – which presumably meant that the film I saw was slightly altered from the theatrical version that came out in June.