Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger/2014/CNN Films/107 min.
True-crime aficionado and award-winning documentary director Joe Berlinger says he’s always felt he had a civic duty to point out flaws in the criminal justice system. His latest film, “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” looks at the reign of Boston’s most notorious and nefarious mob criminal and probes his ties with federal law-enforcement agencies. In telling Bulger’s sordid yet riveting story, Berlinger makes a case that there was widespread corruption at the FBI and the Department of Justice.
During his decades-long career, James “Whitey” Bulger, 84, became world famous. His irresistible narrative has spawned a cottage industry of books and films, says Berlinger. Johnny Depp is playing Bulger in the upcoming film “Black Mass” and in 2006’s “The Departed,” Jack Nicholson portrayed a character that was partially based on Bulger.
When Bulger went to trial in June 2013 (after being arrested in June 2011 in Santa Monica), Berlinger says he saw an opportunity, as a filmmaker, to separate the man from the myth. “You have a guy who ruled Boston’s criminal underworld for 25 years and wasn’t even stopped for a traffic ticket. Finally the Massachusetts State Police said enough was enough and started forcing an investigation. … The FBI tips off Bulger and he goes on the lam for 16 years. Frankly, I thought he would never be caught.”
For his lifetime of crime, Bulger is serving two consecutive life terms plus five years at a facility in Tucson, Ariz. He was found to have been involved in 11 murders.
In the moral code of the Irish mafia, however, there was a worse offense than taking a life and that was to be a “rat” or an informant to law enforcement. In Berlinger’s film, we meet insiders on both sides of the law, many of whom speculate on whether Bulger committed the gangster’s ultimate betrayal. Berlinger’s take? “I think Bulger was never officially an informant in the truest sense of the word, but there was a relationship there where he was passing some information. The truth was in the middle.”
The film argues, sometimes eloquently and other times a bit heavy-handedly, that government corruption paved the way for the gruesome work of a vicious criminal, often showing us survivors who were left to pick up the pieces in the wake of brutal violence.
As for isolating the man from the myth, there was one interview subject rich with dramatic irony who does not appear in the film. Whitey Bulger is the brother of former President of the Massachusetts Senate, Billy Bulger. Unfortunately, Billy is not on camera.
But who knows? Maybe Johnny Depp will give him a cameo.
“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” opens Friday in New York and July 11 in LA.