Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger (2014)
Editor’s Notes: Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger opens July 4th in Toronto at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema and in Vancouver at VanCity Theatre.
Joe Berlinger, the Academy Award-nominated documentarian behind Paradise Lost and Some Kind of Monster, collaborated with CNN Films to make his newest film about Whitey Bulger and the recent legal proceedings surrounding his case. The film doesn’t cover much about Bulger’s personal history as a criminal, opting more to expose the political and judicial failures of the American government. Aspects of Bulger’s history are only explored as a means to reveal corruption and lies from the police. The result isn’t the definitive Bulger documentary one may be expecting, however it’s powerfully evocative of the institutional failures of the American government.
The film doesn’t cover much about Bulger’s personal history as a criminal, opting more to expose the political and judicial failures of the American government.
Whitey Bulger is one of the most notorious crime bosses in American history, being #2 on the FBI’s Most Wanted list after Osama Bin Laden. He was king of Boston’s “Southie” neighborhood whose image of rough, low-income, Irish Boston is represented in many films like Good Will Hunting and The Town. After many years in charge of Southie crime, Whitey then went on the run for 16 years, until he was captured in 2011. The myth of Whitey Bulger has since become confusing, as many believe he spent his mob years, when brutally murdering and trafficking drugs, being an informant for the FBI. This idea has even seeped into popular culture, as the Frank Costello character in the Academy Award winner for Best Picture The Departed, played by Jack Nicholson, was a Boston mobster doubling as an informant in Boston. Clearly he was based on Bulger and the film continued to purvey this cultural assumption that Bulger was an informtant. At the 2013 trial of Bulger, many ideas were explored and challenged. Bulger’s violent past of drug trafficking and murder wasn’t disputed, but questions remained if Bulger was an informant and if he was protected by the FBI.
Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger aims to represent the varying arguments by the Department of Justice, Bulger, Bulger’s former associates, and the families of his victims. What proceeds is a mess of arguments, some stronger than others, all with really rotten, saddening implications. Did the United States government protect a murderer, who terrorized a neighborhood in one of its finest cities? Did they falsify a relationship with him instead, to cheat their way to related major arrests? The truth never becomes clear, although certain assertions are far more reasonable than others. What is evidently clear however is that the United States government, and different levels of police, were in bed with Bulger. It shouldn’t be merely accepted that he was an informant. It seems more likely that he was just paying off the police who gladly accepted those bribes. Other more outlandish stories seem highly plausible but doubtable. The whole affair is a convoluted mess that will make your head hurt.
The general feel of the film evokes a TV exposé, with its traditional use of clips and floating head interviews. Thus it’s limited by not fully using the tools of cinema, although for a TV exposé, it’s pretty fantastic.
Berlinger’s film is adept at pacing the story and revealing information carefully. It doesn’t leave much to remember visually. The general feel of the film evokes a TV exposé, with its traditional use of clips and floating head interviews. Thus it’s limited by not fully using the tools of cinema, although for a TV exposé, it’s pretty fantastic.
American viewers will be left feeling shame, anger and guilt. Regardless of the scenario, how can the American police force allow such perversity? Berlinger doesn’t need to force the victim’s tears down your throat to convey how sickening and hopelessly sad this whole situation is. He allows the facts to take center stage and succeeds tremendously.
Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger is a strong dissection of police corruption surrounding the Whitey Bulger trial. While the film is limited by its attachment to the traditions of the political documentary genre, it succeeds as well as it can within those constraints.