There’s something romantic about infamous criminals. Not only are these people uninhibited by their social mores and folkways, but they are free from the guilt that comes with betraying what is obviously right by doing what is so obviously wrong – and getting away with it over and over again. James “Whitey” Bulger is just that kind of criminal, murdering over a dozen victims and holding Boston in a grip of fear. Good looking, charismatic, intelligent and ruthless, he’s the perfect subject for a documentary, and Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger is a fitting examination of not only what he did and who he affected, but how he was able to doing his criminal activities for so long.
James “Whitey” Bulger is a notorious gangster who made it all the way to number two on America’s Most Wanted list for his years of extorting, murdering and terrorizing the people of Boston for years. Yet, despite being such a high-value target and having the full attention of the FBI, Whitey evaded being brought to justice of an incredibly long time. Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger profiles the man and his actions via a series of interviews with journalists, experts, and, most importantly, the families of his victims. The documentary goes one step further and investigates why Whitey was able to elude law enforcement for so long, exploring the theory that he had the help of the FBI.
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger is solid filmmaking all around. There’s a lot of information to present and a lot personal stories to share, but the filmmakers manage to present something that is not only coherent, but also engrossing. Through good use of interviews, sound bites, archival footage and more, viewers will be given a comprehensive illustration of a man who is both intriguing and repulsive at the same time. A plurality of the documentary does remind of some true-crime television programs, especially the interviews with investigators and attorneys, but the majority of the documentary elevates itself almost into a real-life thriller.
The film goes beyond profiling a killer and morphs into an in-depth investigation of corruption within the FBI. It was common knowledge that Whitey Bulger had committed the crimes that he was accused of, but no one could ever get any evidence to pin on him. So it was assumed that Whitey had the protection of someone with clout within the agencies investigating him, and the film does a wonderful job connecting the dots. With the evidence so compelling, watching everything come together is exciting in the indescribable way that only non-fiction events can offer.
Finally, the most satisfying aspect of Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger is its timeliness. The Whitey Bulger trial happened just at the end of last year, making it a relatively fresh wound to pick at. For those who are only familiar with the Bulger case via the news, this documentary gives special and intimate insight, which is remarkable, considering how recently these events happened. Furthermore, director Joe Berlinger’s team should be credited for capturing some very dramatic moments in real-time. At one point, one of the interview subjects, a witness against Whitey Bulger, is found dead in the woods; this turn of events presented after a lengthy segment explaining how the FBI might be protecting Bulger. Not only is this shocking because a real-life person was possibly murdered within the timeframe of the film, but the news is given to the audiences in real-time, with the victim’s friend receiving a call about the death. Documentaries are fascinating because they present reality, and it doesn’t get more real than that.