Sunday, June 29, 2014

WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger...

Like many New Englanders, I was once fascinated by Whitey Bulger. Unlike many New Englanders, I grew tired of him. Mostly, I was tired of the cottage industry that sprang up around his case. It seemed any two-bit Irish hoodlum who knew him could get a book deal, and any reporter from the Globe or Herald could, too. Ditto for the various cops and lawyers who spent time on the Bulger trail. Sure, I read a couple of those books. There was a time in Boston, especially around Saint Patrick's Day, when you couldn't walk into a bookstore without seeing a floor-to-ceiling Whitey book display.   The locals lapped up the Whitey books because they recognized the street names, and they liked saying, 'My sistuh knew a guy who lived near the garage where Whitey strangled that woman." 

There will soon be a deluge of movie projects about Bulger. Everyone from Barry Levinson to Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are interested in the guy and his exploits.  I was glad Joe Berlinger's documentary, Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger, currently in theaters and VOD, would get here first. Berlinger's done fine work in the past, including My Brother's Keeper (1992), the excellent Paradise Lost trilogy for HBO, and an amusing 2004 doc on Metallica that made those heavy metal heroes look like a bunch of spoiled schmucks. Before Matt Damon puts on the bald wig and plays Bulger as a good-hearted twink, I hoped Berlinger could wade into the quagmire and throw some light on Whitey's world.

Berlinger came through for me, more or less.  Berlinger puts his focus on Bulger's 2013 trial, an anti-climactic mess that wasn't exactly spellbinding stuff but resulted in the mysterious death of one witness and the long-awaited sentencing of Whitey. Berlinger's neatest trick is the way he makes us feel we know Whitey's past just by mentioning tidbits here and there. Such skillful laying out of exposition is to be relished.

Whitey, now 83, doesn't appear often in the movie. We only see him a few times, slightly hunchbacked, shuffling around in his orange prison suit. We hear his voice on tape recordings. When he feigns shock at some of the revelations made during the trial, he still sounds like a teenage shoplifter saying he doesn't know how the stuff got in his pocket. Whitey says early in the movie that he's been humanized in recent years by the love of a good woman. Berlinger doesn't bother following that particular story thread, as if he knows it's just another one of Whitey's lies.

I don't think anyone can watch Berlinger's movie and come away thinking that Bulger is anything other than a lowlife killer. Still, Berlinger makes us doubt a lot of what we'd previously thought about the case  - was Whitey really an FBI informant, as we've been told for many years, or did he simply use his money to buy favors from the feds?   There's also doubt cast on Whitey's FBI file, which is a meager 700 pages, much of it being info turned in by other informants ( parts of it actually reproduced to pad out the file). According to one investigator, an actual informant file could be as long as 60,000 pages. Makes ya think, don't it?

The prosecutors, of course, insist Bulger and the FBI's John Connolly were in cahoots; others claim both were fall guys, and that the Justice Department should also be on trial for letting Bulger run rampant in Boston for so many years. To me, everyone looked shady, even the prosecutors, one of whom couldn't stop fidgeting while being interviewed by Berlinger.  As one of the victim's relatives says, "It's a big circle of shit."

The families of Bulger's victims look weary. The people in Bulger's circle look like mental defectives; they seem more upset that Bulger may have been a rat than a killer. One of them, an obese jerk who speaks with an Elmer Fudd accent, actually blames one of the victims for getting shot. "If you want to hang around gangsters," says the ersatz Fudd, "that's what you get."  Oh yeah, this beauty had a book deal, too. 

The movie is a CNN production and at times it feels like a work made for TV. But it's a solid effort. Berlinger doesn't come close to any absolute truths, but it's unfair to ask that of him. The Bulger story is buried underneath so much deceit that not even an experienced craftsman like Berlinger can hit the bottom of it. Still, in an era where we're suffering through a glut of mediocre documentaries, we're always happy to watch a good one. And this is a good one.

No comments:

Post a Comment