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Whitey: United States v. James J. Bulger

Director: Joe Berlinger
Cast: James J. Bulger, J.W. Carney, Steve Davis, Hank Brennan, Shelley Murphy, David Boeri, Kevin Culllen, Fred Wyshak

(Magnolia Pictures; US theatrical: 27 Jun 2014 (Limited release); 2013)

I Never Cracked

“The only audio of Whitey comes from 30-year-old wiretaps and recently at trial a couple of minutes of recorded conversations when he was talking to relatives. But those were unwilling and unaware that he was being captured on audio. The only audio of him willingly participating in a media project is in this film. It is by no means, necessarily, the truth.”
Joe Berlinger

“You’ve never been an informant.” Whitey Bulger’s lawyer is speaking to him by phone, and his statement might just as well be a question, as the conversation—performed for a camera—means to clarify or at least reframe a few things. As J. W. Carney Jr. leans over his desk, his client makes an emphatic denial. “Never,” Bulger says, his voice simultaneously pointed and muffled. “As a teenager, I took many a beating in the police station. I never cracked.”

The point is apparently key for the 83-year-old Bulger, who maintains that he was a “good bad guy” or “a gangster with scruples,” as the Boston Globe‘s Kevin Cullen phrases it. This even as Bulger doesn’t appear on screen in Whitey: United States v. James J. Bulger, except in archival photos and mug shots. His absence looms in Joe Berlinger’s remarkable documentary, mostly because everyone else has so much to say about him, “everyone” meaning his former colleagues, his victims, and the FBI agents who worked for some 16 years to bring him in.

Arrested in June 2011 and convicted on 12 August 2013 of 31 counts, including racketeering, extortion, and murder. Bulger’s defense, that he was essentially given immunity to kill and commit other mayhem, was premised on the government’s corruption, its complicity in his crimes.

For the many people affected by Bulger’s legendary brutality, the people he threatened and the relatives of people he killed, his status as an informant only complicates the damage he’s done, neither reducing nor augmenting it. The case either way might never be resolved, given that so many of the men with whom Bulger worked or allegedly worked, are dead.

On its face, Bulger’s insistence sounds like he’s invested in a tedious macho reputation (“I asked the questions. I was the one directing, they didn’t direct me.”), but the case raises so many concerns that this one about his self-image seems almost irrelevant. Whatever Bulger thinks or says he did, lingering doubts about what the government said and did remain troubling. 

Bulger is a self-admitted criminal, even if he claims to have “standards”. But the state’s judgment in his case is less an endpoint than an occasion for another set of questions in Berlinger’s film, which screened at AFI Docs and is opening in in theaters and on demand 27 June. These questions have to do with systemic deception, incompetence, and abuse, not just the deviations of individuals, but more worryingly, the persistent condition of social and legal structures, the same structures the filmmaker investigates in the Paradise Lost trilogy, in Crude, and in The System with Joe Berlinger.

Bulger’s lawyers argue that his case was contained, in court, in order that particular backstories were not revealed. They make a persuasive demonstration that the FBI file on him is uneven, perfunctory, and likely not compiled with his help as an informant (or else, it was just poorly constructed and maintained). While Bulger hardly needed to be an informant to do what he did, the government’s insistence that he was—to deny him the immunity defense—helps to close down avenues of inquiry that may or may not have revealed other crimes by other people.

The film’s structure highlights ambiguities and doubts regarding other people’s parts in his career. Specifically, it raises uncertainties—not originally, but cogently—about people who had the institutional power to countenance or even support his enterprises, power that allows allows them to remain unaccountable. Carney introduces at least one piece in this puzzle when he says, “This isn’t really a typical criminal trial.”

That is, Bulger’s assertion of criminal corruption among legal officers is not a means to claim innocence or even reduce his sentence, but instead, “It’s like his last opportunity to tell people that he was never an informant, that our federal government is more corrupt in law enforcement than anyone ever imagined even to this day in this trial.”

The truth of this assertion is unknown and clearly, Bulger has reason to lie. But so does the government. When Bulger’s colleague Kevin Weeks says in court (one of several recordings and transcripts include in the film), “I been lying my whole life. I’m a criminal,” you may be struck by its weird truthfulness. (And this reaction may be exacerbated when, in turn, you hear Bulger telling his protégé, “You suck.”)

It’s not weird that criminals lie for a living, but it is distressing to know that people assigned to curtail and stop criminals also do. Whether such tactics are a matter of practical necessity, ambition, or ineptitude, the lack of investigation in this case is just that, a lack, leaving open questions.

Whitey allows that Bulger’s victims might be best able to measure the tradeoff of Bulger’s conviction for an unfinished story. Indeed, their stories begin and end the film: “Ever since that day, I’ve never been the same,” recalls Stephen Rakes of a traumatizing visit from Bulger and Weeks, “I couldn’t protect my own children. As a man, that just took me away.”

Still, and as harrowing as these experiences surely are, the film suggests that the unfinished part is also disturbing, Cullen doesn’t pretend to measure, but he does offer this: “Whitey Bulger is a vicious, venal murderer, but he was enabled by the FBI and the FBI was enabled by the Justice Department.” These are tradeoffs that can’t be measured, because they remain unseen.

Or, as the liar Kevin Weeks has it, “Nobody’s ever gonna know the truth until people start telling the truth.”


Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.

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