There’s a telling moment in Joe Berlinger’s latest documentary, “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” when a member of the defense team for the legendary Boston crime boss explains to one of his witnesses, “You’re a better storyteller than I am.” Although Berlinger’s latest work is a dense, unsparing look at the offenses and trial of Whitey Bulger, it’s equally concerned with capturing how the many members of Bulger’s expansive web — criminals and innocent citizens alike — use their experiences to control their version of the man.
Documenting both Bulger’s decades-long reign over Boston organized crime and his 2013 racketeering trial gives Berlinger and his team the opportunity to juggle parallel storylines concurrently. Instead of laying out the events of Bulger’s life and continuing through the trial in a simple, linear, start-to-finish manner, the movie begins roughly at the end with a media montage of the news reports following Bulger’s Santa Monica arrest in 2011, the end of his 16-year run as a fugitive.
His capture then sets up the trial, where Bulger was charged with 32 felony counts, including 19 alleged murders. Before we get to understand the man accused, the film’s first real subjects are the family members of Bulger’s victims, an assorted group of Bostonians galvanized by their tragic connections to the man who, at his peak, ruled the city’s Winter Hill Gang. Through the personal struggles of those brothers, spouses and children still grieving for their loved ones decades after their passing, the charges against Bulger become far more emotionally resonant than a simple list of accusations.
As the circumstances surrounding Bulger’s ascendance to prominence in 1970s Boston become clearer, the film introduces a pair of FBI employees who begin to see Bulger as less of a target and more of an asset. Through them, Bulger and the FBI form a kind of working relationship. Though much of the media narrative around the time of the trial had already pegged Bulger as an FBI informant, Bulger’s defense team sets out to clarify the precise nature of those interactions. As they look to debunk the long-held assumptions about their client’s relationship with the FBI, their sleuthing through public records adds a compelling detective aspect to the story.
Lead defense attorney J. W. Carney proves to be a helpful secondary interviewer for the film, becoming a conduit for Bulger’s side of the story. It’s through Carney’s phone calls with Bulger that we’re able to hear voluntary testimony from the man himself. These moments help to demystify Bulger as a larger-than-life figure, as do the frequent aerial shots of the prison in which he awaits trial.
Beyond Carney, his colleagues and the family members, the robust and ever-growing list of players on both sides of the trial creates a daunting cast of characters. Luckily, through a few well-designed evidence-wall layouts, the hierarchy of Bulger’s empire and the culpable parties responsible for their long list of murders are neatly organized. A handful of visual cues, including the repeated use of the same photograph as identifiers, ensures that the dozens of moving parts in the case aren’t confused for one another.
The sheer scale of Bulger’s web of influence means that the narrative can withhold details about some individuals’ involvement until it benefits the flow of the story. It’s a tale that hardly needs any additional twists, but some late reveals about the true nature of one prominent figure’s dealings add some particularly resonant shock value. Much of the film’s highly-detailed approach to the story comes courtesy of an impressive roster of authors and journalists, many of whom reported on these events as they unfolded. Their ability to present various elements of the story in a clear, concise way allows Berlinger to cover even more ground.
The film is careful not to hold the transgressions of a few individuals against their associates, be they government officials, criminals or both. All relevant parties who agreed to participate in the film are afforded multiple opportunities to make their case. Yet there’s an overriding sense of dubiousness that makes it impossible to pinpoint anyone’s version of the story as above reproach, which casts a pall over the entire film. The result is a true crime story with few heroes, in line with other other non-fiction tales like Bart Layton’s “The Imposter” and, of course, the “Paradise Lost” trilogy of films documenting the West Memphis Three saga, which Berlinger co-directed.
As a primer on both the case and Bulger’s career as a mob leader, “Whitey” offers a comprehensive look at a saga that — despite the conclusion of the 2013 trial — still feels unresolved. The number of persistent vagaries and the level of unconfirmed involvement in these various crimes still lingers beyond where the story leaves off. One of Bulger’s associates proclaims that “Nobody’s going to know the truth until people tell it.” The eerie effectiveness of “Whitey” is that it shows how many people can tell their version of the truth and still come up short.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With CNN Films’ involvement as executive producers, the film will likely find a welcome broadcast home there. Despite its lengthy running time, Berlinger’s reputation and the built-in intrigue of the subject matter could lead to a strong reception in theaters as well.