James “Whitey” Bulger will undoubtedly go down as one of history’s bad guys. In his six-decade criminal career, the Boston uber-gangster is thought to have been directly responsible for the deaths of at least 20 people. According to the accepted narrative, his ability to avoid arrest for so long was due to his being a prized FBI asset – in other words, an informant or “rat”.
Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger examines this narrative and finds it wanting. While Whitey had plenty of contact with law enforcement, Berlinger suggests, most of it entailed him paying large sums of money to cops guarantee his freedom. As Bulger sees out his final years behind bars, this persuasive documentary implies that the law enforcement officers who financially benefited from his decades-long crime spree remain at large.
Whether or not Whitey paid off multiple law enforcement officers for unofficial protection is the issue at the heart of this movie. What makes it interesting is the fact that the authorities don’t want this question aired, let alone answered.
The 2011 trial of the aging crime boss hung on the” will-he-won’t he” question of whether Bulger would testify. In the end, his chosen defense was disallowed and he didn’t take the stand If it had been permitted, the movie suggests, Whitey’s testimony would have named the powerful law enforcement officials who had allegedly received payoffs to keep him out of the joint.
Whitey not only features evidence from witnesses in his 2011 trial, it also includes testimony from Bulger himself in the form of an illegally-taped phone conversation with his lawyer. Today, Whitey is more grumpy old man than ruthless hood, and his angry assertion over the phone that he was “never a rat” is one of the movie’s highlights.
There is little doubt that Bulger’s own interests are served by making this claim. However, Berlinger told Rogue Cinema that Whitey’s stance appears more credible given the statements from many of those interviewed. Speaking at the 2014 Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, Berlinger said that the movie doesn’t prove that Bulger was not an informant – but it strongly implies that large sums of money changed hands.
The movie’s strength lies in its on-screen testimony from an impressive number of witnesses. Interviews with law enforcement officials, victims’ families and gangsters who worked side-by-side with Bulger for decades all serve to cast a doubt on the accepted narrative.
If the movie has a fault, it’s that Whitey’s story is just too damn complicated. This particular tangled web of crime stretches back to the 1960’s, and the key players in the extended drama number in the hundreds. At one point, the audience will be forced to ask whether the fine details still matter. After all, isn’t the bad guy now behind bars? However, interviews with the victims’ families remind us that awkward questions still remain. In their opinion, justice has not been done if Whitey’s enablers remain free.