PARK CITY, Utah — The devil came to Sundance over the weekend.
“Whitey,” a new movie by documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, had its world premiere at the storied film festival in the Wasatch Mountains, and for two hours and 10 minutes a sold-out audience was held repelled and spellbound by a cast of characters Massachusetts natives know all too well and by the murderous crime lord who united them: James “Whitey” Bulger.
The full title of the film is “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.” Berlinger — whose acclaimed documentaries often concern court cases and include “Brother’s Keeper” (1992) and the “Paradise Lost” trilogy — views his subject’s life and crimes through the filter of Bulger’s 2013 trial, in which the one-time head of the Winter Hill Gang was convicted on 31 counts including 11 murder charges.
While the movie aims for balance, its contentions are simple and twofold: that the full measure of the FBI’s complicity in Bulger’s reign of violence was not allowed to be brought out in court, and that history and US citizens will not be served until that happens.
Said Berlinger in a Q&A session after the film screened Saturday at the MARC, a cavernous converted racquet club: “I want to make it very clear: I’m not saying that everything that comes out of Bulger’s mouth or the position of the defense is the truth. But those are areas that should have been explored at the trial. The film doesn’t claim to know any more than the amazing work that a lot of great journalists have done for many years on this story. The film is just saying, ‘Hey, something smelly is going on here and it should have been more deeply probed.’ ”
Not surprisingly, government prosecutors Fred Wyshak, Brian T. Kelly, and Zachary Hafer have not accompanied “Whitey” to Sundance, although they are interviewed in the film. Equally unsurprisingly, Bulger’s defense team, Jay Carney and Hank Brennan, were present with Berlinger at the premiere. So was Steve Davis, whose sister, Deborah, died in 1981 allegedly at the hands of Bulger and his partner, Steve Flemmi, although the Bulger jury returned “no finding” in her strangling.
Also present was David Boeri, a reporter for WBUR who has covered the saga for 26 years. (Among the other journalists interviewed in the film are the Globe’s Shelley Murphy and Kevin Cullen, authors of the bestseller “Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice.”)
The Boston contingent made for a small bloc of East Coast energy amid the mellow, couture-parka vibe of Sundance. By contrast, blasé festivalgoers who thought they had seen everything were coming to this story fresh. Details terribly familiar by now to Massachusetts residents at times drew gasps from the audience of Bulger newbies, and some of the Q&A questions reflected an outsider’s view of events.
How did Berlinger find former mobster and Whitey confidant Kevin Weeks, who is interviewed at length in “Whitey”?
“He’s in the phone book,” said the director with a shrug. “He’s very open about his version of the story. We went to the local pizza joint that all these gangsters hang out at, and I guess I ordered the right dish.”
Steve Davis chimed in at this point: “About Kevin Weeks living in South Boston: He has nothing to fear over there, cause that little town’s infested with rats.”
The film is a co-production of Berlinger’s RadicalMedia and CNN Films, and it will air on the cable news channel at an unspecified date. Before then, the filmmakers hope, “Whitey” will land in movie houses, and one reason for its appearance at Sundance is to drum up interest in a theatrical distribution deal. It’s the initial entry in a land-rush of Bulger film projects, including two feature films currently in script development, “Black Mass,” in talks to be directed by Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), and an as-yet-untitled film to be directed by hometown boy Ben Affleck, starring Matt Damon as Bulger.
Berlinger’s documentary is the first out of the gate, though, and already the film has stirred controversy for giving Bulger the one thing he refused at his trial: a chance to speak. Throughout “Whitey,” Berlinger cuts to a recorded phone conversation between Bulger and defense attorney Carney in which the accused strenuously denies he was ever an FBI informant and that he controlled his contacts in the bureau, not the other way around.
“That is the first and only time we’ve ever heard Whitey Bulger’s voice willingly recorded,” the director said at the Q&A.
It was also the closest Berlinger ever got to his subject. His original request for a jailhouse interview was turned down by authorities.
“The next request was to have a phone call in which I participated as the interviewer,” the director said, speaking in a post-screening interview. “But Jay made it very clear that the only thing he would allow would be for me to observe him having a conversation.”
Sitting nearby, dapper and poised beneath a Patriots cap, Carney said: “I just tried to concentrate on the most important issues in the trial and give Jim a chance to address them.”
Elsewhere, Berlinger struggled to bring in as many varied voices as he could. He approached Bulger’s former FBI handler, John Connolly, currently in a Florida prison for second-degree murder, but was only given background information. Another frustration was that prosecutors Wyshak, Kelly, and Hafer refused to sit down for his cameras until after a verdict had been reached and then agreed only to be interviewed for two hours as a group.
“That’s a directorial decision that I didn’t even make that I hope people won’t misconstrue as my attempt to somehow frame them in a negative light,” said Berlinger. “I hope they don’t come across as the bad guys in the film. To me the bad guy is the institutional corruption that occurred during this entire period.”
It is possible, however, that all or some of the US attorneys will be present when “Whitey” has its Boston-area premiere on Jan. 30 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. (The one-night event is already sold out.) In fact, the rumored attendance of both prosecution and defense members, family members of Bulger’s victims, and possibly Weeks means that almost all sides will be represented onstage.
“I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to manage that Q&A,” said Berlinger.
What “Whitey” does not definitively resolve is whether Bulger’s claim that he never informed has any truth to it. To someone like Steve Davis, it is a moot point.
“If a man involved in crime, like myself back in the day, has any conversation with any kind of law enforcement, you’re a rat,” Davis said. “You’re on this side of the fence or you’re on that side of the fence.”
To Berlinger, it is both beside the point and is the point, or at least the X factor that prompted his interest in the first place.
“Do I believe he was an informant?” he said. “I have no idea. But I think there are questions that need to be answered and that are central to this case. Because if Whitey Bulger was an informant, then the killing and corruption and all the stuff we know is terrible. But if he was not an informant and was simply paying people off, and his [FBI] superiors were allowing that to happen because they were using his name on affidavits for search warrants so that mob arrests could be made, and the government is covering up that kind of behavior, we all as citizens deserve to know that.
“I’m no apologist for Bulger,” said the filmmaker. “He was a vicious killer. I’m not here to advocate for him. I’m here to advocate for the truth.”Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.