Joe Berlinger doesn’t tackle simple topics for his documentaries, and the latest is no exception. Whitey is a hard-hitting, multifaceted look at the violent exploits of Boston crime boss James 'Whitey' Bulger and the case that the U.S. Department of Justice mounted against him after years of what we’ll politely call inaction.
How Bulger ruled over Boston with seeming impunity, with multiple murders and countless misdeeds on his résumé, is scrutinized in this compelling film. As in any saga this vast, there are differing viewpoints on how and why he escaped scot-free so long. Berlinger interviews Bulger’s defense attorneys and even allows us to hear the man himself in telephone conversations. We also get to know victims of his crimes and their family members, former F.B.I. officials, and Department of Justice attorneys involved with the case. Whom you choose to believe is up to you, although Berlinger makes it difficult to put much faith in law enforcement. (No one from the Bureau was willing to appear on camera.)
The film also raises some questions it doesn’t choose to answer. The fact that Bulger’s brother became a State Senator of Massachusetts is mentioned only once. The fact that some of his victims may not have been entirely innocent is another troubling matter.
I doubt that any documentary could cover all aspects of the story, which has already inspired fictional treatment (in The Departed), with more yet to come. But Whitey whets one’s appetite to learn more and ask pointed questions about the nature of crime and corruption. You can’t take your eyes off the screen.