You know, you wish you could make this stuff up but sometimes you just can’t as the truth can get amazingly stranger than fiction. “Whitey: United States of America vs. James J Bulger” is a true crime dynamo of a film that is pulled from the headlines as we see one of the more infamous gangsters in US history finally come to justice, but behind that story is an even scarier one of how he operated his unfettered reign of terror over the city of Boston for years. I got the chance to sit down with filmmaker and documentarian Joe Berlinger about what drew him in to this story that had been told before and the nefarious layers that are underneath it all, that SHOULD have come out during Whitey’s trial.
Dave Voigt: While obviously we’ve had gangster docs before, but there is something so unique about “Whitey” as a subject if only because he honestly didn’t seem to give a damn if he went to prison or not? What was it for you as a filmmaker that drew you into this story?
Joe Berlinger: Well it was a couple of things initially, because as my resume shows, I am a bit of a true crime fanatic and I’ve known this story for quite some time and followed the Bulger case for quite some time but never actually thought that I had anything to add to the story because there had already been about a dozen books and even other documentaries. There’s also two feature films about his life in the works, one with Johnny Depp and the other with Matt Damon, I just felt like the topic had been mined and done well. He was on the lam and had basically given a permanent pass by the FBI, so I thought it was done. However when I heard that he had been arrested, my ears perked up just a bit, then when it was announced that he would actually go back to Massachusetts to stand trial, it really began to fascinate me as it tapped into a few different things.
First of all, I can’t think of another modern criminal that has passed into the public consciousness the way Whitey has and yet we just don’t know that much about him. So I thought that the trial would be a wonderful chance to sort of separate the man from the mythology. Just on a basic level, I felt like it would be a situation where he would confront reality and we would learn something but instead little did we know that the trial would be this narrowly focused inquiry where much of his defense was blocked by the judge and that ultimately informed my mission in the film to really provide a forum to discuss so many of these issues that were blocked by the judge.
And it’s not because I am an advocate for Bulger, I’m certainly not an apologist for the man by any means as he was a brutal and vicious killer who did a lot of damage and deserves to be behind bars, but the thing is he was ALLOWED to do that damage and he was aided and abetted by the FBI who aided by the Department of Justice. This entire story of the corruption and circumvention of justice is a story that has really never been told and should have been told. Not for Whitey’s sake, but for the families of these victims who deserve closure and also because the government should never be in the business of deciding who lives and who dies.
Regardless what anyone thinks of the national agenda to bring down the Cosa Nostra (or Italian Mafia), it certain wasn’t any less important then what was happening in the streets of Boston and the government shouldn’t be making decision about who should die in aid of their goals. Initially, my interest was just about seeing him go on trial and finally answer for his crimes in what promises to be the biggest legal proceedings that the city of Boston and the state of Massachusetts has ever seen…and everyone was fascinated and wanted to know what was going on in this trial. However, after things had gone along and I had embedded myself in this trial and more deeply with the defence (the prosecution gave me very limited access) and I never wanted to be one-sided and it was never my mission, but the defence let me into their circle and gave me some info that truly informs the film and kind of blew my mind. I’m certainly not saying that defence argument that he wasn’t an informant isn’t the truth, but they raised a lot of questions and issues that need to be looked into.
That is one of the things that really stood out for me, how there really is this trial inside the trial and while the guilt of Whitey is one thing, we have this myriad of separate issues that need to be addressed. Is this something that you were aware of in the moment, or something you really came upon later while assembling the film?
JB: I’d say I became aware of it as the summer wore on and I became more and more disappointed in the cowardly nature of the governments prosecution. The victims’ families really deserve to know some answers as they have been in limbo for years and quite frankly this was their only opportunity to get any answers, this was it, the one chance for the real story of what made Bulger possible to be told, and it just wasn’t told. I think as the film unfolded and I saw the prosecution just clamping down on what witnesses could be presented by Bulger, a big clue to that was how at the start of the trial he wasn’t allowed to present his immunity agreement.
Seeing how everything was being run in the trial, really informed what my mission in the film was going to be. I used the film to present the larger questions, not in Bulger’s defence obviously but to say that the families of these victims deserve a discussion a lot of issues that just aren’t going to come out at this trial.
Doesn’t that also bring up an endemic flaw in the justice system itself as just not being forward thinking enough and being so narrowly focused one problem that horrible tragedies like this where people can die as a result of only looking at one very specific issue?
JB: I’d say what is epidemic in our justice system (at least in my country) is a lack of regard for the sacrosanct search for the truth but instead we get a system where it is just about getting the conviction at all costs. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great deal of respect for these prosecutors who twenty plus years ago fought against their own bosses to convict and have stuck with it all this time, and while I get the concept of winning and how we all want it, it can’t be at the expense of the truth. Prosecutors have been tagged with suppressing exculpatory evidence in the quest of winning at all costs and that isn’t what the justice system should be about. I think that it is clear in this case that he was never getting out of prison, therefore there was an added responsibility to air the dirty laundry, for the families, for the city of Boston and all Americans who believe in the integrity of the justice system. I have such tremendous admiration for these prosecutors but the system that they work in produced a very cowardly prosecution that didn’t answer any questions as to why and how this monster was allowed to operate.
Were you allowed any access to Whitey at all?
JB: Sadly no, it was all via his lawyers. And even that wasn’t his lawyers, it was because the government blocked all interviews.
Throughout time, where ever there has been governments, there has been corruption and as much as the film is the vicarious thrill of seeing Whitey pay for his crimes and putting this monster behind bars but also a look into the structure of why he was allowed to be this monster in the first place.
JB: Oh to me that is what the entire film is about. To me it really is about how the good guys in our system are also the bad guys. When the prosecutor who was in charge of it all stands on the courthouse steps at the end of the movie and says “With the prosecution of James Bulger, this ugly chapter in the history of the city of Boston is over” it really isn’t over because you have totally swept under the rug who was responsible and how high the corruption went. It is ridiculous for anyone to buy that the myriad of governmental misdeeds that we see in the movie are the result of one low level agent.
The FBI is a paramilitary organization with levels of command and people signing off on everyone’s every step. It goes back to the old adage of history repeating itself and if we don’t know how this happened it will happen again and it already has with so many other informant cases.
We have to learn the difference between winning and doing the right thing.
“Whitey: United States of America vs. James J Bulger” is open tomorrow exclusively in Toronto and Vancouver before opening wide across the country.