Whitey: United States Of America v. James J. Bulger Review [Hot Docs 2014]

Adam A. Donaldson

Reviewed by:
On May 5, 2014
Last modified:May 14, 2014


Joe Berlinger covers all the angles quite well in Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, a straight-forward court case documentary.

Whitey: United States Of America v. James J. Bulger Review


There probably hadn’t been such a titan of organized crime since the heyday of 1930s prohibition and the days of Al Capone. In Boston though, the name James J. Bulger was hardly one with a lot of sentimental nostalgia attached, but rather it conjured images of fear and violence in South Boston, conditions that police and law enforcement at all levels of government seemed powerless to stop. Of course, we know how the story ends, and Bulger, AKA: Whitey, was arrested after nearly 20 years on the lam, tried, convicted and sentenced on multiple counts of murder, conspiracy, extortion and drug trafficking. But how did everyone let Whitey get away with so much for so long?

Acclaimed filmmaker Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost) directs Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger and does so by covering a lot of ground in the origins, career, and downfall of Boston’s most notorious gangster. Berlinger doesn’t break the mould in terms of format, as the documentary is rather straightforward in its process and analysis, using archival footage, court transcripts, and interviews with the police, lawyers, witnesses and criminals who all have their point of view on the world of Whitey. People who like the grind and minutia of a police procedural will dig this doc immensely, while people looking for a probing profile into the mind of a madman probably won’t.

That’s not to say that there aren’t twists and turns. I was familiar with the name Whitey Bulger before seeing the film, but I can’t say that I knew a lot of details about the case. That’s probably the best way to see it, too, because the revelations are genuine, and you can walk in without any preconceived notions about who was to blame for Whitey’s free reign, and who should have known sooner that there was a chink in the process. A lot of that rests on the FBI, who refused to be interviewed for the film and perhaps understandably so (the organization doesn’t typically look this corrupt and inept outside of an episode of The Following).

The film tracks Whitey’s rise to power from his time as a petty criminal, albeit one who did time in Alcatraz, to parlaying the notoriety of his stay in the penal ivy leagues to become a peacemaker in Boston’s crime wars, which he then turned to his advantage by becoming the head of the Irish mob. Bulger shrewdly began informing to the FBI on the comings and goings of the Italian mafia, allowing the FBI’s crackdown on La Cosa Nostra to go down like clockwork. Meanwhile, the Feds turned a blind eye to the comings and goings of Whitey and his people.

Berlinger does get some fairly interesting insights out of Whitey’s former confederates, (people like Kevin Weeks, who was one of Bulger’s main enforcers), and naturally, there is no sign of regret. There is a bit of probing into the mind of the criminal as many people discuss Bulger’s aim in his trial defense, to prove that he’s not a rat, and that he didn’t kill women because neither is an activity worthy of a gentleman mobster. In other words, Whitey isn’t trying to prove he’s not a mobster, he’s trying to prove that he isn’t a bad mobster. It seems like a contradiction in terms, but the difference is all important for guys like Whitey.

As for the FBI, they take a good beating by Berlinger and perhaps justifiably. It’s a statement about the sometimes myopic nature of law enforcement to focus on one problem at a time, but there’s also a startling commitment to ass-covering which results in people like former assistant special agent in charge, Robert Fitzpatrick, being painted as a bad guy by prosecutors because he tried to end the FBI’s ipso facto relationship with Bulger, which was the beginning of the end of Whitey’s empire. Who’s really the bad guy here, the criminal or the crime fighters?

Whitey: United States Of America v. James J. Bulger is a jam packed dossier filled with information and insights into what might be the biggest organized crime case of the last 40 years, and it’s effectively organized, produced and disseminated. It is very clinical though, and while that may have been the point and the aesthetic that Berlinger and his crew were going for, the film’s sub story about the degree to which the authorities enabled Bulger feels like it should have been a little bit more stinging, and honestly, it should be the part that keeps you up at night. As a news piece though, the film is well-researched, well-presented, and quite satisfying. A true crime tale for the modern crime buff.

Whitey: United States Of America v. James J. Bulger Review

Joe Berlinger covers all the angles quite well in Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, a straight-forward court case documentary.