Berlinger goes back to the real-life criminal case setting to create another engaging, thought-provoking, and revelatory piece of work.
Whitey: United States of America Vs. James J. Bulger
The opening to Joe Berlinger’s latest documentary is the format’s biggest staple: the talking head. Stephen Rakes, a mom-and-pop liquor storeowner and one of James Bulger’s extortion victims, recalls the night Bulger instilled the fear of death into him. Berlinger’s camera feels restless even when it’s stationary and, with spot on close-ups and editing, the story of an ordinary man’s fear for his life glues you to the screen. You stay glued for the entire 107 minutes because Berlinger is no novice, having made some of the most invigorating & multi-layered true crime documentaries with Bruce Sinofksy since the 90s, including Brother’s Keeper (1992) and the monumental Paradise Lost trilogy (1996, 2000, 2011) about the West Memphis Three. In Whitey, Berlinger (without Sinofsky this time) goes back to the real-life criminal case setting to create another engaging, thought-provoking, and revelatory piece of work.
Notorious Irish criminal kingpin James “Whitey” J. Bulger ruled the streets of Boston in the late 70s and throughout the 80s. He became notoriously feared in his “Southie” community, with his CV chockfull of you-name-it crimes; from murder to drug dealing and a bit of everything in between. In 2011, at the age of 81, Bulger was arrested alongside his girlfriend after he had been in hiding and at large for 16 years. In 2013, the trial of United States vs. James J. Bulger began, and Joe Berlinger’s documentary traces the intricate web of various criminals, law enforcers, family members, victims, and government officials who spun around Bulger, both the myth and the man. However, if you know Berlinger for the bold crusader of objectivity that he is, you’ve probably guessed by now that this isn’t a linear ‘gangster is on trial, gangster did bad things, gangster goes to jail’ story. The case of Whitey is nowhere near as open and shut as the US Attorney’s Office would want you to think, and that’s where Whitey becomes fascinating.
If you check out James Bulger’s WikiPedia page (here you go), notice how the introduction to his beginnings starts off with the statement that Bulger was a FBI informant. That has, somehow, become the first thing you should know about Bulger. Much of what makes Whitey intriguing is examining the suspicious nature of that by focusing on the biggest part of Bulger’s defense case: that, in fact, he wasn’t an FBI informant at all. What’s more, various FBI agents were informing for him. Bulger claims to have never informed on anyone, and that the conspiracy to create him into an informant is spearheaded by an insecure and corrupt government, desperate to cover up their own empowerment of Bulger to commit the crimes that he did. Berlinger digs deep and, with the help of candid talking head interviews from key players, manages to ask a lot of vital questions. While the answers to most could unravel and expose an ugly side of the American legal system and law enforcement, the most humane question is a malignantly rhetorical one; where are the victims in all of this? Which brings us back to people like Stephen Rakes.
Using Rakes’ affecting personal experience, Berlinger flicks a pebble to offset an avalanche, creating an enormously captivating and emotional documentary in the process. The fact that he accomplishes it even when utilizing the format’s most overused component like the talking heads, speaks volumes about Berlinger’s experience and talent.By balancing his usual Direct Cinema style with some more cinematically inclined techniques, he successfully merges history with the present, and manages to make a film about a notorious criminal indicted with 19 murders feel evenhanded. At no point is James Bulger ever depicted as a victim; his side of the story is just allowed to be heard as well. And one ugly truth out of many is that not a lot of people would be ballsy enough to do that.
Make sure to see Whitey in theatres or VOD out now. Check out our interview with director Joe Berlinger.