Whitey: The United States of America v. James J Bulger Movie Review
Guest Review by Karen Samdahl
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger is a very professionally executed documentary, as one would expect from the Academy Award- and Emmy-nominated director Joe Berlinger. It is also very disturbing in its allegations. I had not followed the case of James “Whitey” Bulger in the news so the subject and the information in this documentary were all brand-new for me; I found them quite fascinating.
Whitey Bulger was for many years #2 on America's Most Wanted List--only Osama Bin Laden superseded him. Already a veteran felon of many prisons including Alcatraz in the 1960s, upon his return to his hometown Boston he became an active member of the Killeen gang and then the Winter Hill Gang. In 1979 he and Stephen Flemmi took over this gang and in the ‘80s and early ‘90s Bulger was the undisputed crime lord of South Boston, and perhaps of all of Boston. Everyone knew it and yet he managed to escape even a charge for a misdemeanor.
Finally in December 1994, the Massachusetts State Police and the DEA moved against Bulger's crime syndicate, but the FBI insisted on picking up Bulger. His right-hand man Flemmi, his primary enforcers and others were captured, but Bulger--surprise, surprise--escaped and for 16 years was on the lam. Sixteen years of appearing on “America's Most Wanted” finally paid off in 2011 as he was captured at an apartment in Santa Monica, California.
The documentary covers aspects of his trial, where he was charged with 32 counts of racketeering, money laundering, extortion, and weapons charges, and most significantly complicity in 19 murders. However, this film is not so much about the things he did, but rather about the one thing he denies doing--and that is being a “rat”--an informant for the FBI, used to take down his competition, the Boston Mafia families--or so the FBI and Justice Department claim. The ones who are really the focus of this documentary are individuals of the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department, as well as these organizations for covering up wrongdoings by their own people. Bulger claims he “owned” these individuals, not the other way around: they were on the take, their organizations looked the other way, and that they were themselves complicit in all the mayhem perpetrated on the citizens of South Boston by Bulger's syndicate for nearly two decades.
To support their thesis and to emphasize the enormous wrongdoings perpetrated under this alleged complicity, the filmmakers interview families of murder victims, an extortion victim, involved members of the FBI, Justice Department, Massachusetts State Police, Bulger's defense team, authors and journalists who have followed the trial and written about Bulger, as well as Bulger's main enforcers (hit men), his partner Flemmi, and Bulger himself.
You need to watch this yourself to weigh the evidence against the claims of various law enforcement agencies and their people, but also to understand why, so many years after the deeds are done, it might be important for these agencies to continue this cover-up. One of the most mysterious happenings discussed in this film is the disappearance and subsequent murder of one of the interviewees the day he was supposed to give his testimony. I highly recommend this hard-hitting documentary.
Seen at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) 2014
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.