WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA V. JAMES J. BULGER directed by Joe Berlinger. A VSC release. 120 minutes. Opens Friday (July 4). For venues and times, see Movies.
With his three Paradise Lost films, documentarian Joe Berlinger spent most of two decades trying to get the West Memphis Three out of prison. But he's convinced that the subject of his latest doc, Boston Mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger, belongs behind bars.
"Normally I've taken the side of the wrongfully convicted," Berlinger says, citing the Paradise Lost trilogy and the film he made before that, Brother's Keeper.
"Clearly I'm not advocating that Bulger should be out of prison or [that he] got a raw deal; he was a vicious murderer. He's where he should be."
The thing is, the more Berlinger learned about the Bulger case, the less he understood it. During the 2013 trial, the FBI claimed Bulger had been working as its informant during his time at the top of Boston's underworld - a claim that Bulger himself hotly disputed but wasn't allowed to disprove in court.
"Being an informant doesn't mean you're allowed to operate with impunity the way he did," Berlinger says. "Being an informant doesn't mean the FBI looks the other way as people are gunned down in the streets."
He's referring to construction worker Michael Donahue, killed in 1982 because he was unlucky enough to be driving federal informant Edward Brian Halloran home from a bar.
"The FBI actually tipped off Bulger so he could execute both of those guys," Berlinger says with a mixture of amazement and horror. That's not the only example of Bulger's collateral damage. A year earlier, a businessman named Roger Wheeler was killed after uncovering a skimming operation in which Bulger was involved.
"The FBI was very much responsible for that killing," Berlinger says. "Those were the cases that I think illustrate the deeper cesspool of corruption that existed in this case."
Over the course of Whitey: United States Of America V. James J. Bulger, Berlinger builds a very convincing case that the FBI allowed Bulger to run unrestrained for its own purposes - even possibly tipping him off to his own arrest and letting him go underground in 1994. But the details of the relationship remain frustratingly opaque.
"There's no evidence that he was ever paid, nor does the government say he was ever paid," Berlinger says. "[If] you're an informant, what's the motivation? You're either being paid - and he wasn't, and the government doesn't dispute that - or you're under indictment and the government tries to flip you. He wasn't under indictment, so what's his motivation?"
The conventional narrative says Bulger was collaborating because it allowed him to send the FBI after his rivals. Berlinger doesn't buy that either: "That's a very self-limiting career for a criminal."
In the end, there's a simple message behind all the legal and ethical entanglements Whitey explores.
"The government should not be in the business of choosing who should live and who should die," Berlinger says. "The national objective was to bring down the Mob. Okay, that's a noble objective, but not if the price [we] pay is that they're in the business of deciding who can operate with impunity."