Joe Berlinger’s documentaries typically deal with glaring flaws in the American justice system, and his latest is no different. Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger follows the trial of one of the most brutal gangsters America has ever seen, James “Whitey” Bulger.
Just as it seems like Bulger will finally be brought to justice, accusations of multi-faceted corruption within our nation’s law enforcement and legal systems surface, and the FBI begins to look just as bad as the mob. Although it is never fully proven, it appears that the FBI may have had a hand in allowing Bulger to remain such a frightening crime figure for far too long a time.
It was a privilege being able to talk with Berlinger when he arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California last week to do some press for the film. During our exclusive interview, he spoke about his original idea for this documentary and how it changed over time, how Bulger became an unforgettable figure in pop culture, how he was forced to use filmmaking tools he had never used in a documentary before for this movie and much more.
Check it out below, and enjoy!
I imagine this documentary started off in one way for you but it eventually became something different as it went along. What was your original idea?
Joe Berlinger: As a guy who has done a lot of crime (documentaries) and trying to hold the feet to the fire of institutions that go off the rails, I have long been fascinated by the Bulger story. In many ways it’s kind of an irresistible saga. You have a guy who was on top of the criminal empire for 25 years and not even stopped for a traffic ticket, and finally pressure from the state police, not the FBI, causes an investigation leading to a long overdue indictment and Bulger’s tipped off by the FBI and goes on the lam.
The other thing that fascinated me just as a storyteller is I’ve never seen a contemporary criminal pass into the cultural myth making apparatus; a dozen books and one of those books is now being turned into a Johnny Depp movie, the Jack Nicholson character in The Departed is based on Whitey, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck working on their own Bulger movie, and other TV shows. In fact, there was such a glut of Bulger literature that, even though I have been long fascinated by the story, I never thought I would make a film about it. It’s not like I’ve been dying to make this film for a long time. I was just simply fascinated by it.
But when it was announced that he was actually being brought back to trial and he would actually not plead out but, at end of 2012 sometime around November, they actually set a trial date….that’s when I started thinking, wait a second, he’s actually going to come back to Massachusetts to stand trial? And this is a great opportunity to use the present tense of the unfolding trial to kind of separate the man from the myth and to understand what made Bulger possible. That’s what I went in thinking I was gonna do. Obviously things change as you get a sense of the lay of the land, but my going in point was okay, finally we’re going to hear the truth about Bulger and I’m going to be there to capture it.
What surprised me and then kind of informed the style of the film was the fact that, right from the outset, the judge made it clear by disallowing at a pre-trial hearing Bulger from presenting his immunity claim. Bulger claims he had a deal of protection. He would protect Jeremiah T. O’Sullivan, the then head prosecutor of the New England Organized Crime Strike Task Force who was bringing down the Italian mafia. Bulger was going to protect him from a retaliatory assassination in exchange for the prosecutor, as long as he was top prosecutor in town, promising him that he would never be indicted for federal crimes. When it was announced by the judge that he could not bring that immunity defense, nor could he call any Department of Justice employee as a witness, that’s when I started to realize that this trial was going to be narrow and very narrow in scope and that the mission of my film really needed to air the many questions that were not being adequately addressed at trial.
Whitey Bulger is a brutal, vicious killer who deserves to be behind bars. I’m not an advocate for Bulger, but I’m an advocate for the truth for the sake of the victims’ families because, in my opinion, Bulger should have been targeted for indictment in 1979. He was part of this race fixing indictment and his name was removed at the request of John Connelly and John Morris and he could have been brought in and put in jail a lot sooner, and a lot of people whom you saw in the film would not have lost loved ones. So for me that’s the mission of the film, to explore some of those questions. It doesn’t mean they’re right. I have no idea whether or not Bulger was an informant, but the official story strains credibility in a couple of areas, so I think it’s extremely plausible that he wasn’t an informant and I’d like to know more about it. These are the questions that the film is asking.
Towards the end of the documentary, you begin to wonder if there’s a huge difference between the FBI and the mob. I kept getting reminded of a line from Married to the Mob where Michelle Pfeifer says to an FBI regional director, “God, you people work just like the mob! There’s no difference.” And he tells her, “Oh, there’s a big difference. The mob is run by murdering, thieving, lying, cheating psychopaths. We work for the President of the United States of America.” Even though it’s never made clear that Bulger was an FBI informant, you can’t help but think that he had some connections there.
Joe Berlinger: Yeah, and the question is, was he simply just paying people off for information, or did he have some deeper relationship as the Feds alleged? But is it plausible that all the bad behavior that went on was only known to John Connelly and John Morris? That just strains credibility, you know? Just given the nature of how those organizations work and the command structures, the official story just doesn’t seem believable.
And then you look at Bulger’s informant file as I did and you have a seven hundred page document. Gregory Scarpa, who was an informant at the same time bringing down the Colombo crime family, his informant file is 55,000 pages full of unique information that led to prosecution, whereas Bulger’s file is full of repetitive information that one could glean from other sources other than Bulger and not leading to any specific prosecutions. So you wonder why is that, you know?
John Connelly himself, from that period, says that we never target the head of a gang. You target someone who is close to crime but not doing crime themselves. I think that’s a little bit of an understatement. I think clearly if you’re going to have a confidential informant, then that informant can’t blow their cover by all of a sudden not doing some level of criminality, but you can’t allow people to murder. That puts the government in the business of picking and choosing of who should live and who should die, which is just not the role of government. The desire and the decision to bring down the Italian mafia, the price of that is to empower the Irish gangsters to run roughshod over Boston and kill people so that you can bring down the Italian mafia. The government shouldn’t be making those choices because there are victims, innocent victims that suffer as a result.