When Boston gang leader and career criminal James "Whitey" Bulger was finally captured in Santa Monica, Calif., in 2011, after more than 15 years on the run, it raised the hopes of victims' families back in Massachusetts that Bulger would finally have to answer for his 30-year reign of terror. As head of the Winter Hill Gang, Bulger used threats, intimidation, and violence to perpetuate his criminal activity, including the murders of 19 people that he allegedly either committed or ordered — but never received as much as a traffic ticket. When an indictment against him was about to be handed down in 1995, he fled. A few years later, he was revealed to have been an FBI informant. So to be brought to trial in a federal courthouse in South Boston, a stone's throw from where he reigned, was both a bitter irony and a vindication. It was then that longtime documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger (who directed the trilogy of Paradise Lost films that were partly responsible for helping free the West Memphis 3) began filming.
The result is a two-hour-long documentary, WHITEY: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger, that raises significant questions about whether Bulger was, in fact, an FBI informant — or whether there's a conspiracy that goes much deeper. Berlinger suggests, mostly through evidence presented by Bulger's defense attorneys, that instead of being an informant, Bulger was in fact paying off FBI and other law enforcement officials, and that his special treatment was a direct result of those payoffs. Berlinger also presents the possibility that the FBI kept an informant file on Bulger in order to more easily justify its arrests of other crime syndicate members in Boston, by alleging that information had been given to them by Bulger.
But Berlinger is quick to deny that the film in any way proves that Bulger was not an informant. "It goes out of its way to show a multiplicity of viewpoints," Berlinger said in a phone interview on Thursday. Still, over the course of several months of filming around Bulger's trial, Berlinger came to believe that at the very least, the possibility that Bulger was not an informant should have been presented at trial — and it wasn't.
"It surprises me that the question of whether or not he was an informant was largely dismissed by people covering the trial this summer as a sideshow issue that has nothing to do with whether Bulger was guilty or not," said Berlinger. "It doesn't have a lot to do with whether Bulger was convicted of the crimes he was convicted of, but if we are to understand what was going on in Boston, and allowed him to reign for as long as he did, it's a fundamental question that needs to be explored."
In an age of WikiLeaks cables, Snowden leaks, and deliberate misdirection by government officials like Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Berlinger's proposition doesn't sound crazy. In fact, it sounds downright logical. But at Bulger's trial, the broader issue of government misconduct was set aside in favor of a more direct accounting for Bulger's crimes. And Bulger himself is insistent that he was never an FBI informant, a claim that has been dismissed by most Bulger watchers but which Berlinger argues is a possibility that should at least be considered.
It's this possibility that has led Berlinger to deny being an apologist for Bulger in many interviews (including this one) and in the press materials for the film. But when asked who has actually accused him of being an apologist for Bulger, Berlinger admitted that, well, no one has. But, he said, when he started making the Paradise Lost trilogy, he thought the films would be about the victims' families; the alleged perpetrators' guilt was, at the time, considered a foregone conclusion. It wasn't until he was halfway through filming that Berlinger realized that the West Memphis 3 might not be guilty. "Knowing our film would eventually cause the parents of the victims pain because the healing process is predicated in part on knowing who did it — I guess I'm taking that baggage into this film," he said.
WHITEY was co-produced by CNN Films and Berlinger's production company RadicalMedia, but doesn't yet have theatrical distribution. Berlinger said he's thinking about how to sharpen it before it is shown to a wider audience. "I think it's a little too long — it was not an easy film to make. It has its imperfections. But it's 90% of what I think it should be."