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Movies

Kevin Cullen

In swallowing Bulger’s lies, ‘Whitey’ documentary suffers

A courtroom sketch of Whitey Bulger, who didn’t take the stand during his trial.

Jane Flavell Collins/AP

A courtroom sketch of Whitey Bulger, who didn’t take the stand during his trial.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Joe Berlinger made a pretty good documentary about Whitey Bulger, but it is seriously undermined by his treating far too seriously Bulger’s claim that he was never an informant for the FBI.

Whitey insists he had no idea that when he sat there, all those years, telling John Connolly stuff about other criminals, that Connolly was writing it down back at the office. Whitey wants you to believe the FBI — not just Connolly, but other agents and supervisors who protected him and, unlike Connolly, got away with it — took care of him because he paid them and saved the life of a federal prosecutor. It’s all jive. Insulting jive.

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But Joe Berlinger takes it very seriously. And his film, “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” suffers for that.

In the 26 years that have gone by since I was part of the Globe Spotlight Team that exposed Bulger as being a protected FBI informant, I have repeatedly stressed that Bulger was a lousy informant, one not deserving the FBI’s protecting him from prosecution and helping him murder potential witnesses against him. It was all a scam. His handler, John Connolly, just lumped Whitey in with his partner in crime, Steve Flemmi, pretending that Whitey had inside information on the Mafia, with which the FBI was obsessed.

The Mafia wouldn’t tell Whitey if his pants were on fire. But the Mafia did talk to Stevie, and Stevie talked to Whitey, and Whitey went along with the charade, that he really knew what the Mafia was thinking, because it was good business.

I’d say Connolly did this for two reasons, and maybe three. First, Whitey was considered a top-echelon informant, and gathering a stable of top-echelon informants is what got Connolly promotions and bonuses and acclaim inside the FBI and out. Connolly also protected Whitey as a favor to the Bulger family, with which he grew up in the Old Harbor projects in South Boston. Lastly, I think Connolly believed in his heart Whitey’s carefully crafted but phony narrative, that Whitey was a good bad guy, a wise guy with scruples, somebody you could deal with. Connolly could justify protecting Whitey, even as he knew Whitey was killing people, because he thought whatever would come after Whitey would be worse. Of course Connolly was kidding himself, and the rest of us.

Berlinger does a public service by showing, in detail, that after all these years, after the millions spent on Whitey’s trial, we still don’t know the extent of corruption by the FBI and the Justice Department when it came to enabling Whitey, or whether FBI agents and supervisors got away with murder.

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But Berlinger’s documentary, in an attempt to put its own stamp on a story so often told, lends undeserved legitimacy to Whitey’s unsubstantiated claim that he wasn’t an informant. The film ignores much of the overwhelming evidence in the public record, and the resulting impression is so guileless and sympathetic to Whitey as to be disingenuous.

At one point, during a phone call with his lawyer, Whitey claims he is a victim in all this. In doing so, he insults his victims and our intelligence. He also reveals his preening narcissism.

Berlinger contends that those of us who have spent much of our professional lives chasing Whitey and exposing him for what he is are too invested in the prevailing narrative to honestly and objectively consider that Whitey was not an FBI informant.

On MSNBC last week, Hank Brennan, one of Whitey’s lawyers, said I had bought into “government propaganda.”

In 1988, when I lived in Southie, an FBI agent told me I’d be murdered if I wrote that Whitey was an informant. I’m about as popular with FBI agents and the Justice Department as a toothache.

But this goes way beyond me. Berlinger is indicting the entire Boston news media, suggesting that we were part of some grand conspiracy to protect the government by accepting that the government protected Whitey while he murdered with impunity. The idea that serious journalists would ignore evidence that Whitey wasn’t an informant because of an established narrative is nonsense. In fact, it’s a better, more lucrative story to be counterintuitive and blow up that narrative. But you can only go where the facts take you.

A couple of years before we exposed Whitey and his FBI protectors, that Spotlight Team — me, Gerry O’Neill, Chris Chinlund, and Dick Lehr — had written glowingly of Connolly and his FBI colleagues for taking out the Angiulo Mafia family. When, two years later, we realized Connolly and his FBI buddies were protecting Whitey, we went after them.

It isn’t only journalists who believe Whitey was a rat. A bevy of judges, beginning with one of the true heroes in this sordid tale, Mark Wolf, also concluded Whitey was an informant. They saw all the evidence.

Whitey insists Connolly made up his entire 700-page informant file to cover the fact that he took money from Whitey. While that’s at least theoretically possible, I’ve read those reports, and showed them to people implicated in them, and they contain information about Whitey’s rival gangsters in Southie that Connolly couldn’t possibly know on his own.

Flemmi and Connolly gave almost identical accounts of how Whitey and Flemmi sat together with Connolly, feeding him information. Connolly gave his account to my colleague Shelley Murphy in 1998, while Flemmi gave his account to DEA Agent Dan Doherty and state police detective Steve Johnson in 2003, when he agreed to cooperate against his former criminal associates. For those inclined to believe that Connolly and Flemmi cooked their stories, little of what Connolly told Murphy was publicized before Flemmi began cooperating in 2003.

So, we’re supposed to believe that Flemmi and Connolly lied, and Whitey told the truth?

That’s really what you have to believe to accept the underlying premise of the film: Whitey told the truth, and everybody else lied.

Whitey was a rat long before he made his Faustian deal with Connolly in 1975. Whitey didn’t take the stand during his trial because he knew the first question by prosecutors on cross-examination would ask him to explain all those FBI reports from 1956 that show he gave up two of his accomplices in a series of bank robberies that landed him in prison.

Whitey claims he pleaded guilty to those robberies to spare his then-girlfriend from being indicted as an accessory. But records show Whitey had his girlfriend identified as the witness against his accomplices while he confirmed their identities privately to the FBI.

If Whitey had the guts to take the stand last summer, no doubt he would have insisted those records were all lies, all made up by the FBI. This is the pattern: Everybody’s lying except Whitey.

Joe Berlinger bought that, either because he believes it or it’s good publicity.

Berlinger has gone to great lengths to point out that only 14 of the film’s 129 minutes are devoted to Whitey’s claim that he wasn’t an informant.

I’d say that’s about 13 minutes too long.

“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” trailer:

More coverage:

- Bulger verdict puts end to historic saga

- Cullen: In the end, everything has passed Whitey by

- Special section: The trial of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist and co-author, with Shelley Murphy, of the book “Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice.” He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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