Documentarian and True Crime Fan Joe Berlinger Makes a Man (Not a Myth) out of Whitey Bulger in WHITEY

Whitey

James “Whitey” Bulger is big crook. Al Capone big. John Gotte big. But bringing him up in the same context as those wise guys is dicey because his life as an untouchable was made possible by the long shadows of their Cosa Nostra. As Boston’s branch of the F.B.I. occupied themselves with the national case against the Italian Mafia, Bulger and his Winter Hill Mob (Boston’s Irish Mob) operated with near impunity. Bulger built himself what filmmaker Joe Berlinger calls a "reign of terror," ruling Boston’s criminal underworld for 25 years unchallenged.

Berlinger directed the upcoming documentary Whitey: The United States of America Vs. James J. Bulger and said that during those nearly three decades Bulger was “not so much as stopped for a traffic ticket.” When it looked like the Massachusetts State Police were ready to bring him into custody, the FBI tipped Bulger off and he went on the run until 2013, when he was finally apprehended and tried for murder, trafficking, extortion and—most contentiously—informing for the F.B.I. Berlinger sped to Boston to shoot the trial, only to learn cameras weren’t permitted in the courtroom. Despite this limitation, he aimed to do one thing all the other Whitey stories couldn’t: “separate the man from the myth.”

Whitey isn’t the first court story Berlinger made without the help of trial footage. Paradise Lost: Purgatory, the last installment of the documentary trilogy he made about the West Memphis Three, was the last piece of a 20 year project to explore the wrongful imprisonment of three young men for the murder of three eight year old boys. Since his first feature, Brother’s Keeper, he’s used the divisive confines of the court as “a vehicle for dramatically inherent documentary. There’s a dramatic structure to the proceedings with two sides always vying for their version of truth; by Aristotle’s definition, drama is conflict.” Yet the courtroom is most important to Berlinger for reasons that aren’t aesthetic: “What separates us from other countries—if you boil it down—what it means to be American is our belief in our personal liberties and the justice system has a unique way of taking that way from us.”

So Berlinger “used the trial” and did “recreations” with audio and transcripts to map the arc of court proceedings. “I couldn’t film the trial, but I sat in the trial and figured out what to recreate and used the relationships I built in the trial to access the defense—they led to me filming Bulger.” What those relationships also provided Berlinger, and the film by extension was a local’s view for which “the city and courthouse are characters.” Instead of outlining a 40+ year history with timelines and talking heads, Berlinger conducts interview “ride-alongs," riding shotgun as defendants drive the streets of Southie, pointing out places they saw Whitey and, in one sad instance, learning of the death of a witness to trial. Even from protective custody the defendants suspect Whitey’s involvement.

Bulger is something like a modern day Scarface, and his story has been the subject of books and TV shows, and next fall we'll see Johnny Depp play Whitey Bulger in Black Mass (based on the titular book). Berlinger called Bulger’s story “irresistible” adding also, “it’s fascinating that in the dozen or so books about him, Bulger’s never spoken for himself. Letting him speak here sets Whitey apart from the other things that have been done about him."

What Berlinger’s doc also reveals is the complicated accusation that Whitey informed for the FBI. Being an informant “doesn’t mean he could kill people while the FBI looks away. If you believe he was an informant [you believe] an institution of the government decided to bring down the Italian mafia and, in order to do this, empowered a different Mob; it choose the winners and allowed the Irish mobsters to run roughshod.”

To complicate things, Whitey can’t be called a rat so could never admit to informing, even if it were true. What Berlinger’s doc reveals is a legacy of F.B.I. corruption that not only substantiates the State Police’s mistrust the for the Bureau, but casts doubt on 20 years of court cases tried with evidence supposedly acquired with the assistance of Bulger, the informant. This information affected Berlinger’s social agenda for the film. "The government shouldn’t be in the business of picking battles and deciding who should live or die. That’s not the proper role of government. The more I realized this; I realized the film needed to provoke a different inquiry as to who is responsible for Bulger’s reign of terror.”

Recently, Berlinger’s clout earned him a flagship documentary series on the new news site, Al Jazeera Cable Channel. His show, The System, will enter into areas of criminal justice he’s eagerly seen in passing glances. “Every time Paradise Lost airs on HBO I’m flooded with letters from people who’ve been wrongly incarcerated. I can’t make a feature length doc about every case but a weekly show let me dig into some of the cases people have brought to my attention.” Berlinger’s very happy with the show, despite discomfort adjusting to his new role on camera. “I believe in the justice system, but it’s run by people who make mistakes. There’s nothing worse than unjust sentencing or wrongful incarceration by the government. When it happens we have to stand up and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“Spending time with the families and seeing the tangible result of decisions made by the government to see who lives and dies--that moved me most. Bulger’s a vicious killer and he deserves to be behind bars. I’m not his advocate. I’m an advocate of the families.” He repeats: “ “It’s the duty of every citizen to hold the system accountable.”

WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. JAMES J. BULGER opens in New York on June 27th and in Los Angeles Friday, July 11th at the Laemmle Royal.

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