No one doubts that the FBI’s Most Wanted career criminal Whitey Bulger was guilty of his crimes. Not even Whitey Bulger himself doubts it.
But as a hard hitting new documentary on his life and trial reminds us, the truth is never pure and rarely simple.
What makes "Whitey: United States of America versus James J. Bulger" so compelling is that two time Emmy winning director Joe Berlinger gives voice to every shade of opinion in this twisted tale.
Some people wanted Bulger captured and prosecuted for his crimes, but still others wanted him to live out his days on the run in the apparent hope that their own misdeeds would never come to light.
That’s why they gave Bulger a five van police cordon on his way to and from his 2013 trial, Berlinger’s documentary makes clear. There was serious concern that a sniper might try to silence Bulger before the truth came out.
But as Berlinger’s controversial new documentary makes clear, the whole truth has not come out yet – far from it. In fact, questions still hang over the exact nature of Bulger’s relationship with federal law enforcement.
Was Bulger an FBI informant as most people believe, or was this claim a distancing tactic by the government to protect itself and preserve its prior Mafia convictions the film asks?
“I’m not from Boston and so I was surprised that people were so welcoming to me to tell the story,” Berlinger tells the Irish Voice.
“Boston has a reputation for being a little guarded about letting people in. The fact that an outsider came in to Southie [the heavily Irish American neighborhood and Bulger’s old stomping grounds], I thought I was going to get a lot more resistance. But people were terrific.”
Families of Bulger’s victims were more used to being ignored or passed over, Berlinger discovered, so the opportunity to tell their stories was a relief.
“I was always fascinated by the Bulger story. His brother rises to the top of the political machine and Whitey rises to the top of Boston’s organized crime. And for the whole of his time at the top – involving murder, intimidation and drug trafficking – he isn’t issued so much as a traffic ticket,” Berlinger says.
There isn’t another contemporary gangster in America who has become more of a cultural fascination, because the myth-making about Bulger is non-stop, with Johnny Depp about to star in "Black Mass" and Ben Affleck casting Matt Damon as Bulger in their own hometown version.
“I never thought I had anything to say about Whitey precisely because he has already been so popular. There have been a dozen TV shows, there are multiple books, feature films are being shot, there’s been plenty of stuff done about him,” Berlinger said.
But when it was announced Bulger had been arrested in California in 2011 after 16 years on the lam, Berlinger’s ears perked up. Then when a trial date was set it promised to be the biggest gangster trial in Massachusetts since the 1920s.
“I’m a guy who likes to go beneath the surface and tell the story behind the story, so here was an opportunity to separate the man from the myth,” the director says. He couldn’t pass it up.
As Bulger says of himself, he was a murderer, he was a criminal and he was a drug dealer, but he didn’t kill women and he was never an FBI informer.
Growing up Irish American, Bulger was keenly aware of the special contempt the Irish hold for touts. He didn’t care what anyone said of him as long as they didn’t call him a rat, the film shows. Whether or not you believe him is up to yourself, of course.
“I focus on that because that’s what his defense centered on. The film doesn’t present that claim as the gospel truth,” Berlinger says.
“That’s the driving question of the film. Is Bulger burnishing his image before ascending into the criminal hall of fame? Is he manipulating all of us by making that claim, or is there some validity to it?”
That’s the question that Berlinger wants the audience to ask, and that’s the question for investigators to answer, not for the sake of Whitey and his legacy, but in the interest of truth.
“Whitey was a vicious killer who deserves to be behind bars. But I’m an advocate for the truth, particularly for the victims' family members who deserve to know how their loved ones died,” says Berlinger.
“And I think that every citizen of the United States system of justice should be concerned about what happened and why.”
If Bulger was an informant we still don’t know how high up the FBI chain of command the conspiracy went. Who knew that Bulger was allowed to kill and extort without censure?
“Being an informant does not give you a license to kill or run roughshod over the city of Boston,” explains Berlinger. “The government should not be choosing who should live and who should die, which is precisely what they did in deciding to go after the Italian mob and look the other way as they empowered the Irish mob.”
The crazed pursuit of the Mafia in the early days may have made the FBI reluctant to realize that the power vacuum they were creating was being filled by an even more ruthless Irish mob, the film suggests.
Not surprisingly, this idea is not popular among Boston’s upper echelons or among its investigative journalists who see it as a sideshow to the main event, which was capturing and convicting Bolger.
“The film is not saying that Bulger was not an informant. It’s looking into troubling questions like if he was an informant, it doesn’t permit you to kill people with impunity,” Berlinger says.
“If he was an informant why does his file look so fabricated? Why was he never paid? And why did the FBI break its own rule to never approach the king of a crime syndicate instead of his low level wingmen?”
Berlinger freely admits he doesn’t know what the whole truth of this saga is, but neither does anyone else yet. “I can only tell you what people are saying and what the problems are with those versions of the truth.”
Kevin Weeks, one of Bulger’s right hand men, gets one of the last sound bites in the film when he says, “We’re not going to know the truth until everyone starts telling the truth. Everyone keeps shifting things to suit themselves.”
Berlinger knows that includes Bulger himself.
“Am I saying that what’s coming out of Bulger’s mouth is the unadulterated truth? Absolutely not. But a lot of what he’s says is disturbing even if it’s only half true. I will leave it to the audience to decide for themselves.”
Until there’s a real government inquiry into Bulger’s own claims about the conspiracy of silence that allowed him to wage war for so long, we may never know.
“You can’t empower one set of criminals to take down another,” Berlinger concludes.
"Whitey: United States of America versus James J. Bulger" opens in theaters and on iTunes on June 27.
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