In what was probably my second most anticipated documentary of the year behind “Life Itself”. Joe Berlinger’s (“Paradise Lost” Trilogy) “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Burgler” tells the story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the notorious South Boston crime boss who Martin Scorcese based Jack Nicholson’s character off of in his film “The Departed”. Brought to us by CNN films, a brand new subsidiary of CNN that focuses primarily on documentary features, and who has released both last year’s excellent and haunting “Blackfish” and this year’s “Life Itself” (currently at my #1 spot for both best documentary and best film of the year). They seem to be at the current forefront of financing specific documentaries so that they can be released to a wider audience. And so far, I can say I am very impressed with the types of documentaries that they’re producing. But even more reason why I was excited because this was by documentarian Joe Berlinger, the director of such acclaimed films as his superb 1992 documentary “Brother’s Keeper”, which focused on a the trial of a semi-illiterate farmer, the 1996, 2000, and 2011 “Paradise Lost” Trilogy, about the unfortunate long and drawn out trial of the West Memphis 3. Which mind you are three of some of the best documentaries I have ever seen. Then 2004’s probing look at the band Metallica in “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster”, and finally 2009’s intense examination of the South American oil trade “Crude”. Berlinger is right up there with the caliber of documentary filmmakers like Werner Herzog (“Grizzly Man”), Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room”), Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”), Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), Errol Morris (“The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”), James Marsh (“Man on Wire”), and Ken Burns (“The Central Park 5”). All documentary filmmakers who are at the top of their game and whose documentaries almost never fail to disappoint.
The film starts off by introducing us to several South Boston residents, most of whom were either eye witnesses or victims of families who were terrorized by “Whitey” (aka James Burgler otherwise known as “The Irish Godfather”) who reigned and was king of the organized crime world in the United States for almost 25 years going back to the mid seventies and staying in power until the late nineties, which at that point he went on the lam for 13 years until his capture in 2011. Whitey was the boss of the infamous Walter Hill gang, a band of Boston wiseguys who were completely and utterly ruthless, menacing, and terrorizing in equal respects, and who also were responsible for dozens of murders. Whitey’s ring grew so big that by the late nineties to early aughts he landed a #2 spot on the FBI’s Most Wanted. Second to that of only Osama Bin Laden. But here’s the kicker – he had also been an FBI informant for years. Whitey was let free to run wild and become the head of the most notorious gang the United States has ever seen. All while under the knowing eye of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Only to be informed by the same organization he helped out to essentially flee, then land on their list of Most Wanted, until his capture in 2011. Where at the age of 83 he would go on to be tried for 19 murders. The documentary focuses on Whitey’s rise, his reign of terror, his relationship with the FBI, wiseguys, informants, trial lawyers, eye witnesses, and families of victims; mostly in and around the Boston area. And asks the central question – how could a Mob boss who headed a gang that was so ruthless possibly have also worked for the United States government?
There is a little something for everyone in this documentary. Being in that I have always been fascinated by the Mob. Like most guys I know who were at a young age. I was always interested in people like Al Capone and John Gotti. That and I loved films like Frances Ford Coppola’s exemplary “Godfather” Trilogy (1972, 1974, and 1990), Brian DePalma’s 1987 film “The Untouchables”, and what still might be arguably the best film made about the Mob – Martin Scorcese’s “Goodfellas” (1990). Anybody with even the faintest interest in any of the above people or films will most likely find this documentary worthwhile. It’s filled with informative interviews from members of the Boston community who were in some way involved with Whitey, be it by association with the Mob or by ways of being a victim of them. It also contains some great archival footage, voice recordings, and eye witness testimonies. Furthermore it’s a compelling and thought provoking look at both his rise and fall as well as the deep, multi-layered levels of government corruption. Particularly by that of the FBI. The amount of protection this guy received from one of our supposed to be most trusted government organizations is appalling. Lastly, I thought it did a fairly good comprehensive job at depicting Whitey’s run from his rise to his fall, as well as the court proceedings that took place when he eventually was captured in 2011. The only couple of criticisms I had were at times it felt like an overload of information that I personally had a hard time following. Similar to when I watch Asian films about crime families. Just the sheer amount of people involved from all aspects, while important to depict, can often times be overwhelming and can wind up confusing the viewer. Which at a few points happened to me here. It also felt slightly one-sided, in that most all of the testimony you see or hear from people in the film are from people who are against Whitey and want to see him put in jail. Which is totally understandable. I just thought to myself there had to still be some Whitey supporters that they could have interviewed to go along with it which would have made it seem a bit more balanced. Those two criticisms aside, this is a well thought out, comprehensive, thought provoking depiction of one of the most notorious crime bosses in United States history and his own
government who protected him.