When Osama Bin Laden was topping the charts at number one on the American Most Wanted list, hot at number two was Boston gangster, James “Whitey” Bulger. When Martin Scorsese finally won his long overdue Best Picture Oscar, it was for The Departed, with the main bad guy, played by Jack Nicholson, based on James “Whitey” Bulger. When Joe Berlinger’s 16 years in the making Paradise Lost documentary trilogy came to an end with the release of the West Memphis Three and it was time to move on, he looked to James “Whitey” Bulger, and made Whitey: United States v. James J Bulger.
For decades, Whitey seemed to operate in Boston with impunity. From extortion to cold blooded murder, Whitey and his Winter Hill Gang never seemed to be a priority of authorities. When it finally was time to bring serious charges against Bulger in the mid 90s, he received a tip off and went on the lam. The tip off was always assumed to have come from the FBI, which in turn lead to the assumption that Whitey had been an FBI informant all along, giving him the seeming carte blanche he had taken advantage of all those years.
After 15 years on the run, Bugler was caught, and another two years after that, he was returned to Boston to finally face charges for the countless crimes everyone knew he had committed. Whitey: United States v. James J Bulger splits its time between a history lesson on Bulger, and following many of those testifying against him in the lead up to the trial. It also sheds a lot of light on the alleged FBI cooperation from Bulger, leading down the most interesting rabbit hole in the entire documentary.
The Paradise Lost series and the amazing Brother’s Keeper had already proven Joe Berlinger to be one of the best documentary film makers out there for following court cases. And here, Whitey is more proof of those bonafides. Berlinger has a way of keeping his interview subjects off guard, so they reveal more through their unconscious candidacy than they ever would in a standard interview.
Rarely are they sitting down, facing bright lights, answering his questions. Instead, Berlinger ingratiates himself in their lives, following them on their day to day, letting them open up naturally. And it’s that natural, unguarded environment that leads to all the best bits.
I don’t think Whitey Bulger was ever the kind of crook to be idolised or deified anyway, but Whitey: United States v. James J Bulger makes sure he’s never romanticised in at all. James “Whitey” Bulger was no Robin Hood, or a movie gangster who only hurts other gangsters. He was a killer and a manipulator and probably a sociopath. And Whitey: United States v. James J Bulger exposes all of that in the way that a man like this totally deserves.