We only hear his voice, running underneath mugshot photos and the occasional bit of silent black-and-white surveillance footage. Convicted crime boss and murderer Whitey Bulger comes off as articulate and calm, with that polished voice having a “Who, me?” quality of martyred incredulity.
“Do what youse want with me.”
But nobody comes off well in Joe Berlinger’s intricate, troubling crime documentary, “Whitey: United States of America vs. James J. Bulger.” Not the cops who profess frustration at the decades they were unable to bring Bulger to justice, not the Massachusetts prosecutors who finally had him in hand and in court, not the FBI and Justice Department, which allegedly protected him from jail during a murderous, extortionate crime spree that ranged from the ’60s to the ’90s.
Not even the families of the victims, united in grief, eaten up by outrage, a little slow to recognize that, in some cases, the relative they lost was playing with fire – dating mobsters, hanging out with them.
They had to simplify, in the extreme, the movie “The Departed” to make this “vicious, venal murderer’s” tale easy to follow and understand. But at least the fictionalized Hollywood version offered closure.
Berlinger, a veteran filmmaker with the acclaimed “Paradise Lost” films about the unjustly convicted West Memphis Three as the crown jewel of his résumé, wades into the morass of the Bulger case, giving us the highlights, speaking to most everybody involved and straining to draw conclusions where the evidence is clearest.
Bulger “ran amok” in Boston for decades, strong-arming businesses, murdering rivals and cultivating a ridiculous “Robin Hood” image, that of “a gangster with scruples.” Someone or some institution was protecting him. The culprit was the FBI, the one organization that refused to cooperate with Berlinger’s film. They had Bulger on the books, they say, as an informant. Nobody knows how far up the chain of command this deal went, but Bulger was untouched by the law for years until local authorities finally came for him in 1994. But he fled and hid for 16 years before his final capture in California.
Berlinger focuses on a protege of Bulger’s and picks up the thread of the story from assorted reporters who covered the case and the scandal that arose from it.
But mainly, Berlinger spends his screen time with Patricia Donahue, whose husband was killed in a drive-by more than 30 years ago; with Steve Davis, whose sister Debra was murdered; and with Stephen Rakes, whose version of the American Dream was owning his own liquor store, but who had Bulger, in his place and in his face, basically taking the business from him within days of opening.
The prosecution team sits, in a row of three, trying to explain why justice was so late catching up to “this monster.” Reporters have trouble containing their fury at the injustice of it all – the local FBI protecting Bulger because they were frantic to have some insider give them apparently useless gossip about what the Italian mob, or competing Irish mobs, were up to.
And the survivors weep and long for their day in court, with even that falling short of their hopes for revenge. They, like the viewers of “Whitey,” have to feel frustrated by the scope of this case, the lack of comeuppance for so many involved in it.
That Bulger, at long last, is rotting in jail is little consolation. Perhaps only a Hollywood version of this story can give it a satisfying conclusion.