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Sunday, April 27, 2014

WHITEY: Hot Docs 2014 Review

James 'Whitey' BulgerCourtesy of Magnolia Pictures
2014, 106 minutes
Rated R for language and some crime scene images

Review by Joshua Handler

Oscar-nominee Joe Berlinger's latest documentary, Whitey: United States v. James J. Bulger is an incendiary documentary that initially appears to be a straight biography, but is far from it.  The film begins when James 'Whitey' Bulger is arrested and follows his trial while exploring the man and the corruption that plagued Boston for years.

Bulger is a psychotic criminal who terrorized Boston for decades before disappearing for over a decade.  He was next to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI's Most Wanted List and he was thought to be an FBI informant.  This film, however, questions the validity of that claim and digs deeper into the story of why a man this dangerous could be allowed to run free through Boston without being charged with a crime.

Through the ultimately unsatisfying trial, Berlinger digs deep into Whitey's reign of terror.  What's shocking is the fact that Whitey claims that the FBI gave him immunity in exchange for information.  While it's still debated whether this is true, it seems highly likely given the fact that Bulger was never arrested during his peak (there is ample evidence in the film to support the above claim).

As much as this film condemns Whitey's actions, it is even more condemning of the Boston FBI branch.  There was a period of time when the Boston FBI branch wanted more than anything to take down the Mafia.  To accomplish this goal, they supposedly enlisted the help of Whitey in exchange for immunity. Berlinger explores the FBI's actions during that time and comes up with more than one highly disturbing conclusion.

It is a breath of fresh air to see a biographical documentary not be presented like a straight biography.  Berlinger knew that that would be a dull approach to a film about this crazy a man, so he started at the end of the story and worked his way back through his own investigation and the trial.

Overall, Whitey is a potent piece of documentary filmmaking that is as disturbing as it is provocative.  Berlinger never lets the pace slow and keeps the revelations coming throughout.  Magnolia Pictures will release the film in June followed by a broadcast on CNN later in the year.


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