He ruled the Boston underworld with an iron fist for nearly 30 years, while police stood by. James “Whitey” Bulger has become a Hollywood myth. But a new documentary seeks the truth behind the mobster.
“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger” by Oscar-nominated director Joe Berlinger was presented out of competition at the Sundance Film Festival this week.
“I have long been fascinated by the Bulger story,” the filmmaker told AFP. “Here’s a guy who reigned over Boston’s criminal underworld for almost thee decades, wasn’t even stopped for a traffic ticket.
“And when the heat got on, he was tipped off, fled and was on the road. And when he was finally caught, it became very clear that for years, they really weren’t looking for him.”
Protected by corrupt officials, Bulger was all-powerful in Boston in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. But he was finally arrested near Los Angeles in 2011 after 16 years on the run.
After a long-awaited trial, he was convicted of 11 murders last August and given several life sentences.
The trial was “one of the biggest legal proceedings in Massachusetts history, probably since the Sacco and Vanzetti trial in the 1920s,” said Berlinger, saying he used it “as a springboard to kind of tell the whole 30-year story.”
Bulger has had dozens of books written about him, and was the inspiration behind Jack Nicholson’s character in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film “The Departed,” as well as two other projects currently being developed in Hollywood.
“He has passed into such popular consciousness in the American cultural myth-making machine,” said the director.
The documentary is comprehensively researched, and includes a rare telephone interview with Bulger himself with his lawyer after last year’s trial, as well as first-hand testimony from victims’ families.
It pulls few punches in recounting 30 years of terror in Boston and the official corruption which abetted it.
“This film is not an apology for him. He’s a vicious brutal killer and he deserves to be behind bars, but there are questions of corruption that have yet to be answered,” said Berlinger.
The biggest suspicions concern the FBI, which was allegedly “bought off” by Bulger to cover his activities, before alerting him to his imminent arrest so that he could flee.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which insists on the contrary that Bulger was their “spy,” is the only key actor who declined to take part in the documentary.
“My disappointment in the trial is that a number of areas of inquiry that would have exposed much deeper government corruption were not addressed,” said the filmmaker.
“People deserve to know how corrupt our institutions can become, if in fact it’s true.”
He also regrets that Bulger was unable to defend his theory that the prosecutor at the time offered Bulger immunity in exchange for protection, fearing for his life after a wave of mafia arrests.
“I was greatly disappointed that the defense of Bulger was so narrowly defined by the government. He was not allowed to present certain witnesses. He was not allowed to present his immunity claim.
“He claims he was given immunity because of a personal promise to the then prosecutor who could have prosecuted him.
“This was a disappointment because a basic tenet of the American judicial system is that the defendant should be allowed to present a full and meaningful defense, even if you don’t agree with it.”
The reaction of observers after the death of one of the witnesses during the trial illustrated the general climate of suspicion.
“I don’t believe he was bumped off by anybody related to the case,” he said.
But he added: “When it was announced that he was killed, everyone who was covering the case, the people attending the trial, discussed as a very real and tangible possibility that the government might have been involved in killing him.
“This shows you the depth of depravity that was shown in that courtroom and how shaken to the core people’s belief in the justice system has gotten.”