In all of the hubbub surrounding the capture, indictment and trial of James J. “Whitey” Bulger, two kinds of reporting occurred: the responsible kind that took great pains to chronicle the fracas’ every minute detail, and the sensationalist kind that cared more about the exchange of expletives between Bulger and his longtime confidant, Kevin Weeks, in the middle of federal court. Of these, Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger assuredly falls into the former category, but that’s not necessarily to say that it’s a great piece of journalism, or even a particularly good film. Berlinger’s work here is impressively comprehensive, and the volume of information on the case is plentiful. It’s the execution that’s frustratingly lacking.
Which is to say that Whitey isn’t a particularly bad film, either, just a disheveled, disorganized, ugly and pointedly non-cinematic one. This subject has been covered in print and at length before and since FBI agents rooted Bulger out of his Santa Monica apartment and charged him with murder most foul, conspiracy to murder most foul, narcotics distribution, extortion, and money laundering; Whitey, if anything, is just an extension of that coverage, put on the big screen for our elucidation and edutainment. Berlinger doesn’t have a new angle on the Bulger mythos, his Robin Hood persona, or what his past crimes even mean in today’s Boston.
He does, however, have some sharp thorns to stick in the side of the law enforcement agencies that allowed Bulger to get away scot-free for several flavors of bad behavior. Whitey makes a meal of the corruption that, in essence, enabled Bulger’s criminal tendencies and helped him maintain a stranglehold on Boston for years. The question is posed, in both more and less explicit terms, as to whether Bulger is the bigger crook, or if it’s really the FBI. After all, the Feds are supposed to be the ones putting the psychos behind bars, something Berlinger depicts through news clippings of the Bureau’s successful takedown of the Angiulo crime syndicate prior to Whitey’s rise to prominence.
It’s a fair question, and one that absolutely must be asked. It’s also the element that throws Whitey off balance and turns it into a lurching, scattershot monster of a documentary that feels about two hours longer than it actually is. This is not a movie about Whitey Bulger. This is a movie where Whitey Bulger plays second fiddle to John Connolly, John Morris and Jeremiah O’Sullivan. Berlinger’s intent here is fine and noble, but he has, in effect, made two pictures. One serves as a scathing finger wag at the FBI’s colossal sleeziness, the other indulges in a weird, partly sympathetic portrayal of a man who, all federal interference and flimflam aside, is responsible for killing more people than he has digits. How does one pity a man as guilty as Bulger is, and for committing atrocities as brutal as he did?
If you’ve seen The Departed, you’ve seen the cutesy make-believe version of what Bulger’s criminal reign actually looked like. Whitey points to the much more graphic reality, occasionally stumbling into the surviving relatives of Bulger’s victims to show us just how much suffering he caused. There’s a movie worth making about the ripple effect of his barbarity, and there’s a movie worth making about the badged types who permitted that barbarity to occur. Whitey admirably tries to be both, but Berlinger, for his many talents as a filmmaker, can’t straddle that line. The effect undermines the top-notch research and preparation; Berlinger knows his stuff, and that understanding is reflected in the film, but the filmmaker ultimately dilutes his personal pursuit of justice for the FBI’s transgressions by inviting us to feel bad for Boston’s most notorious boogeyman. Whitey has outrage to spare, and a skewed idea of where to direct it.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and TV on the web since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter.
Directors: Joe Berlinger
Writers: Joe Berlinger
Release Date: June 27th, 2014