These days it seems as though everybody wants a piece of the pop-culture commodity known as Whitey Bulger, the South Boston hood who murdered and made millions under the auspices of the FBI. He’s inspired a shelf-load of books, numerous articles, and much media coverage, and is the hero of an upcoming feature film based on the book “Black Mass,” now shooting in Boston with Johnny Depp starring as the notorious gangster.
But filmmaker Joe Berlinger isn’t so much inspired as disgusted by the notorious gangster in his newest documentary, “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” and that goes double for all those in positions of public trust who abetted Bulger’s crimes. In every frame of the film, Berlinger’s heart goes out to the victims and their survivors. Though his documentary suffers from conventionality and slickness (as when he re-creates the Bulger trial proceedings), and his speculations about coverups tend to obfuscate rather than illuminate, he offers a forum for those who suffered to express their anger and pain, underscoring the evil of the man who victimized them.
People like Stephen Rakes. Whitey forced him to sell his South Boston liquor store at a cut-throat price. Rakes describes how Whitey put a gun on the table and picked up Rakes’s little boy as way of clinching the deal. “Ever since that day I’ll never be the same,” Rakes says. “I couldn’t protect my own children.”
Or Patricia Donahue, wife of Michael Donahue, an innocent bystander who gave a ride to a neighbor and ended up as collateral damage in one of Whitey’s many gangland executions. Or Steve Davis, brother of Debra Davis, an ex-girlfriend of Bulger hit man Stephen Flemmi. Bulger was accused of strangling her, then having her buried in a Dorchester marsh after ordering Flemmi to pull her teeth out with pliers to foil forensic identification. (A jury returned “no finding” on her murder.)
Local viewers might recognize these people from sound bites on the news during the media coverage of the Bulger trial last year. But here Berlinger gives them an opportunity to tell their stories in full. Many will also be familiar with the trial itself and its outcome, so “Whitey” doesn’t have the thrill of explosive revelations unfolding in real time, as did the Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky-directed “Paradise Lost” trilogy, a riveting account of a more obscure case (at least initially) of the justice system gone berserk. Berlinger’s wrap-up of Whitey’s career — from juvenile delinquent to murderous kingpin to seeming retiree with an arsenal and bundles of cash hidden in the walls of his Santa Monica, Calif., apartment — also covers familiar ground.
But his coverage of the trial goes well beyond the superficiality of a segment on the local news. He interviews the three prosecutors (who sit together and bear an unfortunate resemblance to the “see no evil” monkeys), the defense lawyer J. W. Carney Jr., and local media who have long covered the Bulger beat, including Globe reporter Shelley Murphy and columnist Kevin Cullen. He digs into the unholy alliance between Bulger and crooked FBI agent John Connolly, who granted Bulger criminal carte blanche in exchange for information about the local Mafia.
At this point Berlinger seems to lose his way and get caught up in a back and forth about Bulger’s claim that he was not an informant and would never murder women. It seems a moot point, and burrowing into it allows Bulger an opportunity to make the case that he could have made had he deigned to testify (and be cross-examined) at the trial.
Moreover, Berlinger turns the case into a fable about the elusiveness of truth and the distortion of conflicting points of view, a kind of South Boston “Rashômon.” Whether he succeeds at this or not might depend on one’s taste for conspiracy theories. Was the Bulger defense’s strategy of proving he had been given federal immunity squelched by the court because it was a red herring or because it was a coverup of more government perfidy? Who is the biggest liar — Whitey Bulger, the FBI, or hardened assassins like John Martorano, who testified against Bulger and in return was sentenced to only 12 years after pleading guilty to 20 murders?
Tough calls, and Berlinger has not added clarity or closure to the debate. But to his credit he consistently falls back on the point of view that too often gets lost in the sensationalism and subterfuge — that of the victimized.
“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” trailer: