Americans have a fascination with gangsters, and with none more so in recent years than James "Whitey" Bulger (1929 -- 2018). For over thirty years, Bulger was the leader of a violent crime ring in South Boston. Late in 1994, he fled Boston to avoid capture and remained on the loose until captured in California in 2011. In a large 2013 trial in Boston, Bulger was convicted of 31 counts of racketeering and sentenced to two life terms. He was murdered gangland style in prison in 2018.
I had seen two earlier films based loosely on Bulger's life. Martin Scorese's 2006 film "The Departed" received the Academy Award for Best Picture and stars Jack Nicholson playing the Whitey Bulger character in a story of two young policemen on opposite sides of the law. Directed by John Cooper and starring Johnny Depp as Bulger, "Black Mass" (2015) offers a chilling portrayal of Bulger and his many crimes.
I hadn't known anything about Bulger and learned from both these films. I took the opportunity to watch a third film about him, "Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger" (2014) which, unlike the other two movies, is a documentary based upon Bulger's 2013 trial. While showing and discussing many of Bulger's crimes, the film centers upon Bulger's relationship with the FBI. Bulger had worked with an FBI agent as an informant to provide information about the Boston Mafia, a rival criminal gang. The agent soon proved to be crooked and within Bulger's ambit. At his trial, Bulger denied he had been an FBI informant. His denial is explored in the film with the suggestion that much of law enforcemnt had been corrupt for many years letting Bulger have his way.
The lengthy film tells a complex story in a complex way. The tone is melodramatic and wandering and the film is difficult to follow. Still the film is properly troubling to watch and informative. There is no footage of the trial itself (cameras were not allowed in the courtroom) but the film offers excellent footage of the events surrounding the trial. It features interviews with many characters, including defense attorneys, withnesses against Bulger, and many of his violent comrades who turned state's evidence. A group of three Feds comment periodically on the allegations of broad corruption made by the other characters. The film was show onsite in Boston with many scenes of the places where Bulger and his gang flourished.
I found it troubling to see broad criminality of this extent in contemporary urban America, and this film, and the two other Bulger films opened my eyes to its scope. There is a certain vicarious response in seeing evil in action. Bulger will undoubtedly be the subject of other movies and studies in the coming years.