Best known for his Paradise Lost trilogy, as well as Crude, Brother's Keeper and Some Kind of Monster, Berlinger's latest documentary Whitey chronicles the 84-year-old mob boss' 2013 racketeering trial in Boston and features on-camera interviews with law-enforcement officials, Bulger's defense team, the families of Bulger's alleged victims and members of the Massachusetts media.
The film doesn't glorify Bulger's life or career, nor does it advocate for his release from prison where he is serving two life sentences and five years. Whitey does, however, give Bulger the opportunity to deny government claims that he was an informant. Through his defense team and sanctioned, taped phone conversations with his lawyers from jail, Bulger argues he was allowed to operate his crime syndicate for years because he bribed officials and was promised immunity.
Although Bulger has not seen Berlinger's film, his defense attorney Hank Brennan told UPI he personally was pleased with the outcome because it gave Bulger a fair chance to tell his side of the story.
"I actually marvel at the level of access and cooperation I got, in part, because Boston is historically insular and somewhat distrustful of outsiders, to generalize," Berlinger told UPI in a recent phone interview.
"So, here a New Yorker was coming in and, basically, everybody, including James 'Whitey' Bulger, opened up for the film. I think, on one level, I worked very hard to gain trust. I do have a track record now. People can certainly look to that track record for the conclusions about how I conduct myself," he said.
"One of the last comments that is made in the film is made by [mobster-turned-informant] Kevin Weeks. It was probably the penultimate comment because, obviously, the final comment we give to [scheduled witness] Stephen Rakes, who was murdered [while the trial was going on.] But Kevin Weeks basically says, 'No one is going to know the truth until everyone starts telling the truth and everyone kind of has shaped the story to fit their own agendas.' And that, to me, is kind of the overriding theme of the film. We're hearing everyone's perspective, but really it's unclear what the truth is. So, whether people opened up to me because they had an agenda or whether or not they trusted me or both, it's hard for me to say, but the access that I got, I think, was pretty remarkable."
The filmmaker said he was long fascinated by both Bulger's story and the inner workings of the criminal-justice system, but admitted he didn't seriously consider making a documentary about Bulger until he was arrested in 2011 after more than a decade as a fugitive. Berlinger said he was further intrigued when Bulger was told he would not be allowed to present his immunity defense at trial and several witnesses were not permitted to testify.
"The criminal-justice system and where it can ride off the rails -- as in the Paradise Lost case, the 'West Memphis 3' case -- has been a preoccupation of mine for a long time," Berlinger noted.
"In addition, as a storyteller, I have always been fascinated by the multiple views that we have of Bulger. Some people have made him into a hero," he explained.
"There's a whole mythology about him being a Robin Hood figure, a protector of his neighborhood in Southie. I've never met... Well, I've never actually met him. But, I've never seen a contemporary criminal or contemporary bad guy who has so passed into the cultural myth-making machine to the degree that there are over a dozen books about him. There is a Ben Affleck-Matt Damon movie in the works. Johnny Depp is currently shooting a movie based on Black Mass, one of the books about him. So, I was fascinated by how somebody gets transformed into a legend, but still never thought I had anything to add, precisely because there is this plethora of literature and he was on the lam and the reality was ultimately unknowable because he was gone and, frankly, I thought the FBI had given him a free pass and we would never see him again.
But when he was finally arrested -- you know, a new generation of FBI comes in and decides enough is enough and the Massachusetts State Police had a lot to do with that, as well -- when he was arrested in Santa Monica, my ears kind of pricked up for the first time and then when it was announced that he actually, literally wasn't going to plead out, he was actually going to stand trial in Boston in what promised to be perhaps the biggest legal proceeding in Massachusetts history since Sacco and Vanzetti, [who were convicted of murder,] in the 1920s... When it was finally announced at the end of 2012 that, yes, he is actually standing trial, that's when [I thought:] 'OK, now, I can make a film. Now, I can bring my long-standing interest in the subject.' Because the trial promised to be kind of a clearing-of-the-air and a separation of the man from the myth.
And that's how I looked at my film -- as an opportunity to separate the man from the myth and to get into the story of what made Bulger possible. That's how I started it, but when it became clear to me that the trial wasn't going to be the clearing-of-the-air that I think the families of the victims and other long-time observers of this case were hoping it would be, that's what kind of informed my mission and my point of view in the film, which was basically to raise the questions that, in many ways, the trial and the local media tried to suppress. ...There are just many troubling questions about what made Bulger possible that need to be answered that haven't been answered."
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger is now playing in theaters and through video-on-demand platforms.