Film Review: Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger

The trial of notorious mobster Whitey Bulger leads to accusations of pervasive corruption within the FBI and Boston Police Department.

Tipped off that he was about to be arrested, James "Whitey" Bulger fled Boston in 1994 for Santa Monica, Calif., where he lived for 16 years before he was captured in 2011. At the time he was second, behind Osama Bin Laden, on the FBI's "Top Ten Most Wanted List."

Currently appealing two life sentences, Bulger ruled a criminal empire for decades, committing extortion and murder with apparent impunity. As this dense and ultimately frustrating documentary shows, Bulger is not only unrepentant, but claims he did not have a fair trial due to widespread government corruption.

Director Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost) provides some background on Bulger before focusing on his trial, which began in June 2013. Since cameras were not allowed in the courtroom, he opts to recreate statements and testimony. He also relies heavily on news broadcasts about the trial.

Berlinger interviews attorneys during and after the trial. J.W. Carney, Bulger's chief lawyer, makes several claims about his client, then acts as a liaison so Bulger can make his own statement from a prison telephone. Defense lawyer Hank Brennan shows Berlinger and his crew evidence he thinks supports Bulger's claims, in particular his FBI dossier. Prosecuting attorneys refute defense points one by one, but do not address some of the more puzzling aspects of the trial.

In addition to the lawyers, Berlinger interviews several of the reporters who have followed Bulger's story for years. They are unanimous in their scorn for the mobster, and most seem to believe that Boston police and FBI agents were complicit in Bulger's crimes.

Finally, Berlinger interviews several victims and survivors. Their accounts, and their anger at how Bulger escaped arrest for so long, give Whitey its strongest material.

Bulger's criminal career is so complex and far-reaching that it is easy to lose track of who killed whom and why. During the trial, no one, not even Bulger, questions serious charges against him, including murder. Instead, lawyers battle over whether or not Bulger was an FBI informant.

Berlinger documents compelling evidence that Bulger was, which would explain how he escaped arrest for so many years. But some attorneys and many reporters are adamant that Bulger is lying, either to protect his reputation as a "straight-up" crook who wouldn't rat on his peers, or just to muddy the waters in hopes of receiving a lesser sentence.

Neither answer is very satisfactory, and in fact the trial's outcome leaves just about everybody involved sullen and angry. Bulger's crimes, including girlfriends strangled and left in shallow graves, are so sordid that it is hard to sympathize with his claims of FBI corruption.

But Berlinger makes a strong case that the agency's Organized Crime Squad was thoroughly compromised during Bulger's reign. One former agent connected to Bulger, John Connolly, is currently serving a 40-year sentence for murder.

"I've never seen such depravity in a courtroom," says reporter David Boeri (also credited as a consulting producer). Johnny Depp is scheduled to play Bulger in the Warner Bros. release Black Mass.

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