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Review: True Crime Doc ‘Whitey: The United States vs. James J. Bulger’ Plays Like A First-Rate James Ellroy Adaptation

Review: True Crime Doc 'Whitey: The United States vs. James J. Bulger' Plays Like A First-Rate James Ellroy Adaptation

There are few real life criminals alive today who possess the kind of allure and grandeur of James Joseph WhiteyBulger. This was a guy who, as a young thug, stoically did time in Alcatraz, and upon his release rose to power in South Boston, eventually running organized crime in the area, uninterrupted, for more than 30 years. On the eve of his arrest he was tipped off and he fled, spending 16 years on the run before finally being captured and brought to justice on a host of charges, including his connection to 19 murders (two of which were young women). But what makes Joe Berlinger’s riveting new true crime doc “Whitey: The United States vs. James J. Bulger” such an eye-opener is that it isn’t just about a bad guy who did bad things, but the layers of corruption and moral ambiguity that stacked up on both sides of the law. At some point the movie doesn’t resemble a true crime doc as much as a first-rate James Ellroy adaptation.

The documentary starts off, somewhat predictably, with Bulger’s arrest after 16 years evading police capture (and at least three decades terrorizing Boston before that). In 1994, with local law enforcement (along with the F.B.I.) finally barreling down on Bulger, he made a break for it, and in 2011 was arrested in Santa Monica, California with a $2 million bounty on his head (the only person the government was offering more for was Osama bin Laden). From that initial arrest, we go back and get biographical information on Bulger—his scrappy ascension through the ranks of Boston’s organized crime underworld, his penchant for violence, and the claim that, above all else, he was granted unprecedented immunity for his crimes due to the fact that he was a longtime F.B.I. informant.

What makes this claim so amazing is that it not only re-contextualizes his reign of terror into something altogether more icky, but it served as the crux of Bulger’s defense when his laundry list of charges finally went to trial last summer. Bulger’s team claimed, and with evidence that is pretty profound, that Bulger was never an F.B.I. informant, but rather that key members in both the F.B.I. and the Justice Department were on the take from Bulger and that the story that he was an informant was fabricated as a way for them to evade detection. As a theory it’s tantalizing, but as Berlinger and the defense attorneys start to present their evidence, it takes on a queasy level of corruption.

Berlinger’s documentary primarily consists of talking head interviews with many of the people involved in the criminal case, including Kevin Weeks, a low-level leg breaker who saw Bulger as a surrogate father figure. It was Weeks’ testimony that helped bring down Bulger and his partner Steve Flemmi, who also ran South Boston’s criminal syndicate (he was implicated in many of the murders that Bulger was charged with), but whose stories ring somewhat false and boil down to him standing around with one of the criminals, watching them do horrible things (according to him, he never took part). 

The revolving door of talking heads, particularly in a documentary this stuffed with information, not to mention the “Rashomon”-like prism of conflicting narratives, would normally weigh down the movie and sap the energy out of a tale that is nothing but energy. But each and every character that Berlinger talks to, from the assorted goons to the slick lawyers defending said goons, has a vitality and charge all his own. Berlinger also wisely focuses some of his time on various family members of Bulger’s victims, who find themselves focusing all of their anger on Bulger, since they all know that whoever aided him on the side of law enforcement will never actually be brought to trial (two supposedly rogue F.B.I. agents, John Morris and John Connolly, were thrown under the bus, although the Justice Department still cites their legwork as evidence that Bulger was a viable informant).

Without the more emotionally-rooted interviewees, the movie could have easily been lost in a sea of data, especially since, as the movie progresses, so does the criminal sprawl, with bizarre, tangentially related murders and set-ups all over the country. (The movie, and the trial, don’t even go into that time that Bulger supposedly rigged the Massachusetts lottery; an anecdote that puts him into the rarified space of the comic book super-villain.) What’s even more incredible is that one of Berlinger’s interview subjects, a local liquor store owner who found himself on the wrong end of one of Bulger’s extortion plots, is murdered right before taking the stand. The documentary literally captures some of his last words. The investigation claims that he was poisoned by an unscrupulous business associate, but whatever happened, it lends both the trial and the movie the air of a ’70s paranoid thriller or the very best American crime fiction. 

Berlinger, of course, was a co-director on the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, which successfully helped free the wrongly convicted West Memphis Three. That same strain of antsy, activist spirit courses through ‘Whitey,’ although its target is more elusive and the goal harder to pin down (this is especially true because Berlinger doesn’t have any interview footage with Bulger and wisely focuses on the trial instead of him as a person). With the “Paradise Lost” films, it was clearly a case of a bungled investigation and a small town caught up in a misguided witch-hunt. Bulger is undeniably one of the biggest scumbags on earth. What’s harder to identify is who investigating the criminal became a criminal themselves, and what, exactly, they had to do with it. With the F.B.I., Justice Department, and several arms of the local law enforcement all implicated by various parties at various times, it makes for a more difficult target with an even slimmer possibility for resolution and catharsis. It might not be the same emotional sucker punch that “Paradise Lost” was, but in a strange way ‘Whitey’ might be more tragic. [A] 

This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

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