Many years ago I taught a course in the sociology of deviance to a class of fledgling Boston-Irish policemen. I enjoyed them enormously because they didn't write down everything I said and cough it back up on the test. A waggish friend called them "your heroic coplets."
The baby cops listened, with eyes only slightly rolling, to my earnest strictures about the connection between crime and social disadvantage. But they drew the line at labeling theory, a thesis then in vogue that law enforcers and social workers tend to stick inner-city kids with deviant identities that increase their odds of become career criminals. One young cop raised his hand. "Call it what you like, prof," he said amiably. "I know riff-raff when I see it."
There's plenty of riff-raff to go round in a new documentary about the Whitey Bulger trial, but not much deprivation in sight unless you count the moral bankruptcy of government officials who enabled Bulger's long reign of terror in Boston's South End. By now it's no secret that hundreds of thousands of dollars changed hands in bribes, kickbacks, hush money, snitch money and what have you. According to Whitey: United States of America Vs. James Bulger, the man who ran the notorious Winter Hill Gang was far from the only player in that sordid little game.
Bulger himself appears in the documentary only as a slightly ghostly figure at the other end of a prison telephone, responding to questions from his defense attorney that may have been posed by director Joe Berlinger. More on that in a moment, but Berlinger — who has built a career (Brother's Keeper, Crude, the Paradise Lost trilogy) defending those on the wrong end of official injustice — has another story to tell, about how the FBI jumped eagerly into bed with Bulger and kept him on the streets, ostensibly to help them infiltrate Boston's Italian mafia.
That Bulger ended up running the FBI rather than the other way about is a scandal. In this age of disillusionment with officialdom, though, I can't imagine whom it would shock other than by the degree of corruption of FBI agents like John Connolly, who was put away for 40 years on racketeering charges for protecting Bulger and another alleged informant, and for a murder of which he was recently cleared. As my student policemen (who hadn't even gotten out on the beat yet) repeatedly told me as far back as 1982, the line between crime and law-enforcement is hazily drawn.
Berlinger began shooting Whitey just before Bulger's trial began in June 2013, and he's thorough to the point of confusion about who's saying what for or against whom. In between murky footage of Whitey and company going in and out of seedy bars and abandoned garages, with or without terrified victims, the movie is structured around testimony from witnesses, relatives of victims, lawyers, cops, FBI agents and former Bulger associates who informed against their boss after they were caught.
And here's where things get a little sticky. Like many advocacy journalists, Berlinger is on the side of the underdog, which makes him selective about which sources he's willing to take on trust. He shows a proper compassion toward the families of victims seeking "closure" through the trial, but doesn't really probe their relatives' involvement in the underworld.
Berlinger uncovers a wealth of evidence suggesting that the FBI and the Department of Justice lied about almost everything; the testimony of defense attorneys and reporters goes unquestioned. They are shown hard at work; government officials perch uncomfortably in a row chairs for an interview, looking shifty.
At times Bulger, who insists from jail that he was never an informant, seems to be running Berlinger too. Given that Whitey himself was convicted last August on multiple counts of racketeering, extortion, money laundering, weapons charges and complicity in at least 11 of 19 brutal murders, it's hard to see him as anyone's victim. Berlinger doesn't try to retool him as a hero, but he seems to accept Bulger's self-image as a gentleman criminal who would never rat out an associate, no matter how many years in Alcatraz it had cost him.
A neat, muscled man with sharp features who ought to be played by Kevin Bacon in any bio-pic, Bulger remains frustratingly opaque. If, indeed, the FBI falsely claimed him as an informant, then that was a miscarriage of justice. But given his documented record of bullying and violence and the lowlifes with whom he hung out, Bulgur's loyalty to his partners in unspeakable crime, along with the possibility that that he may not have actually strangled or shot two women with his own hands, hardly seem like virtues.
In the end it is the unresolved death of Steven Rakes, a victim of Whitey's extortion who was on his way to the trial to give evidence against both Bulger and the FBI, that is the movie's greatest mystery. Berlinger doesn't come and out and say, but it's all too clear who he thinks dunnit.