The good news is that anyone who’s a fan of gangster bios on the History or Biography Channel is going to love this movie. The better news is that it’s a much more pointed vision of history than the usual TV overview of mob stories. Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger gives testimony and indicts more key players in the Whitey Bulger circle than the courts ever could. Joe Berlinger couldn’t get cameras in the courts, but his in-depth cross examination brings the feds to the stand.
According to the documentary, Whitey was only concerned with two things: He didn’t want anyone to think he ever whacked a woman and he didn’t want anyone to think he was a rat. The rat thing, well, if you’re from where Whitey Bulger’s from, being a rat is the worst thing there is. If news spread that Whitey went to jail a rat, that would mean his entire life in the volcano was for nothing and he was less than nothing in that world. The only reason he said anything at all, according to the documentary, was on account of love. Whitey would have taken the rap for everything, real and imagined, if only to save his girlfriend from going to jail. He was a changed man. Seventeen years on the run can do that to a guy. Whitey would plead guilty for love.
That’s what Whitey would have you believe, but not our heroic documentarians. Whitey was in bed with the Feds and they see that corruption as a rot that taints the whole justice system. According to the documentary, the FBI and the Justice Department thought they were using Whitey as an informant. The way Whitey saw it, the Feds worked for him. They were his paid lackeys. And they were paid pretty well. Whitey helped the Feds take out the Italian “Mafia” for him. The Feds wanted to score points after Hoover botched the whole “Mafia” thing and Whitey wanted Boston for himself.
Whitey fed the Feds. He fed them Jerry Angiulo. He fed them anything that was eating into his own territory. Even if it were his own people. Whitey’s handler was a federal cop named John Connelly and the pair had an “unholy alliance” that was wholly profitable to both sides. Everybody made money and all the pinches were made that were convenient to make. Federal cops left Whitey alone to do what he wanted, so long as he what he wanted was to get a leg up on the Italian mobs.
The Feds had hundreds of pages on how Whitey was helping them. Seven hundred and seventy pages, to be exact. That’s a pretty big file, right? No. Not in informant cases on the scale of Whitey Bulger. Those things go upwards to tens of thousands of pages, sometimes hundreds of thousands of pages. Something is obviously wrong in law enforcement. These guys can’t get their stories straight.
That might be good for Whitey, but not for the victims of his reign as Boston’s crime lord. These guys have been waiting for this trial for years. They got things to say. One of the highlights of Whitey comes from one of the victim’s family, a guy who’s been waiting for years to tell his story in court, Stephen Rakes. He knows things. He’s made friends with another victim’s family. They meet for breakfast. They find comfort in each other that they’ll never find with anyone else. Who else would even understand?
It’s a small club and members do not wish membership on anyone. Rakes died of cyanide poisoning while waiting to testify. Rakes’ body was found in a wooded area of the Boston suburb of Lincoln on July 17, 2013, one day after he found out he wouldn’t be called as a witness against Bulger. Those secrets the guy was keeping, they died with him. Almost in front of the camera. It’s heartrending, the way it’s presented. A call on a cell phone. An unanswered door. A whole string of curses that say more than any eulogy could.
You won’t see that on The History Channel. Though, I predict they’ll try after seeing Whitey.
Whitey comes from Academy Award-nominated and two-time Emmy and Peabody winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger, best known for his documentaries Paradise Lost and Brother’s Keeper and who copped his rock chops making Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. Berlinger does his best to take the myth out of Whitey Bulger. This is not Martin Scorsese’s Whitey and it won’t be Johnny Depp’s. I’m a sucker for those History and Bio Channel docs on mob night (This was produced by RadicalMedia for CNN Films) but they never get in depth enough for me and they certainly don’t take a stand. Berlinger doesn’t just get into the history, though he does, from Whitey’s days in the Winter Hill mob through his ascension and takeover, he makes a case. He makes a case against the Feds and against the gangsters.
Berlinger doesn’t leave any stone unturned. He talks to witnesses, gangsters, reporters, crime historians and victims. Victims of extortion, victims of violence, victims of law enforcement, Berlinger shines his light equally. “Thirty years ago, I was scared of Whitey,” the first filmed witness says after recounting his first encounter with the future Boston mob boss. The introduction was a shakedown, more than a shakedown actually. Whitey was taking over his liquor business and the alternative was death. Thirty years later, he’s sure he’s going to get some kind of justice.
Whitey Bulger rose to power with the help of corrupt Boston FBI agents in Boston. A lot of the testimony against the mob boss came from admitted underworld figures, including hitmen, bookies and extortionists. Jurors heard from 63 government witnesses during the five week trial. Serial killers like Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi and hitman John Martorano testified against Bulger.
Whitey Bulger is alleged to have been the leader of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang during the 1970s and ’80s. Bulger was indicted in 1994, but took it on the lam after his corrupt FBI handler John Connolly tipped him off. In the 16 years he was in hiding, Whitey was one of the most wanted fugitives in the U.S. Bulger was caught in Santa Monica, Calif. in 2011. According to testimony from an arresting FBI agent federal investigators were led by Bulger to a stash of 30 weapons and $822,000 in cash by the accused mobster after his arrest. Prosecutors allege that Bulger had been an FBI informant and that he was protected by corrupt agents between 1975 and 1990.
Joe Berlinger presents more than just evidence in Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger, he frames it into a story of deceit and government cover-ups. He gives equal time to all parties, injured and injurious. “Whitey” Bulger, 84, was convicted of 11 murders, extortion and drug dealing during the time he was boss of the Winter Hill crime gang in Boston during the 1970s and ’80s. The documentary is polished, but the emotions are raw. It’s as fresh as the headlines, even if the verdict already came down.