An Interview with Joe Berlinger,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
JAMES J. BULGER
By Joshua HandlerOscar-nomianted documentarian Joe Berlinger has made a career of exploring an incredible array of subjects ranging from the West Memphis Three (the Paradise Lost Trilogy) to Metallica (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster). His latest film, Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger is an exploration into the trial of James 'Whitey' Bulger, the criminal who was the inspiration for Jack Nicholson's character in The Departed. Bulger was allowed to roam the streets of Boston for decades, committing heinous crimes with no punishment. Berlinger explores the truth behind the claim that Bulger was an FBI informant (a claim that Bulger consistently denies) and whether there was corruption in the FBI during the period when Bulger was terrorizing Boston.
Because of the diversity of his projects, I asked Berlinger about how he decided on his subjects. "Different projects…have different reasons for being. I jokingly tell my friends that…I do either music or murder," said Joe Berlinger. "In all seriousness, I tend to go for subjects that I think the media has treated in very black-and-white terms because the truth in most situations is much more complex. I tend to like to explode stereotypes…even with this Whitey film…there are just many myths that have grown up about this story, and the reason I was attracted to doing something about it is, for me, the trial represented an opportunity to separate the man from the myth. [T]here are a lot of swirling questions that have never really been answered…"
Whitey is not a straight biography, which is highly unusual for a documentary about a character as colorful as Bulger. Making a straight biography was never Berlinger's intention, though, because, as he
said, ""The straight biopic is kind of a tired form…it's not really what intrigues me."
Whitey explores something quite different from the life of James 'Whitey' Bulger; it explores the corruption in the FBI during the '70s and '80s. "I actually think it's light on deep biography, but really explores his [Bulger's] relationship with the FBI and his life of crime during the period during [which] he was allegedly an informant, and…for me, thats the new and interesting part of the story - the allegations that the story that has been…told by so many people and accepted as fact that he was an informant might actually not be the case at all. I'm not saying he was not an informant per se, but I am saying in this film there are some definitely disturbing questions that have yet to be answered about if he was an informant, how on earth could that have happened that he was given basically a license to kill and all the blame is heaped on...two bad apples, John Morris and John Connelly? Certainly this guy couldn't have operated with that kind of impunity with only those two people aware of what was happening. [I]f he was an informant and allowed to kill, it's bad enough hat we don't have more accountability for the sake of the families of the victims, and if he was not an informant, as Bulger alleges during his trial, then the level of corruption and deception goes much deeper and these questions need to be answered as well.
"[A]s a true crime aficionado, I have always been deeply fascinated by the Bulger saga, and also as a media-maker, I've been fascinated by the Bulger saga because I can't think of another contemporary criminal…who has…passed into the cultural myth-making machine the way Bulger has…you know you say "Whitey" and many people know exactly who Whitey is. You know, how many criminals are we on a first-name basis with like that? And so even though I've been fascinated with this story for a really long time, I never thought i had anything to add because there's been over a dozen books written, there've been television docs, two major feature films in the works…but a lot of this stuff deals in this mythology of Bulger.
"When he was arrested in Santa Monica, my ears perked up because…prior I thought there's no way this guy was ever getting arrested, that he had been given a free pass, you know, he was tipped off and given a free pass…so when he was arrested, my ears perked up and then when it was finally announced towards the end of 2012 that he was going to stand trial in Boston, that's when I thought theres a great opportunity here to explore a lot of these questions, to separate the man from the myth…to find out what really happened. [T]o me, it was the opportunity to structure it around the trial to start with the arrest and then to use the trial as this present tense springboard to flash back on his criminal history, what the standard story is, and then what Bulger's arguments are to me was...an interesting opportunity to do something new because there has been so much coverage but…the trial [was] the first opportunity to dig into that mythology, and also, which I wasn't necessarily sure I was going to get, this is the first time Bulger has ever spoken in a project, this is the first time we actually hear from Bulger himself and his side of the story…this is the first time…he has willingly cooperated with a film. But, all that having been said, in no way is this an apology for Bulger…Bulger is a brutal, vicious killer who deserves to be where he is…so I'm not an advocate for Bulger, but I'm an advocate for the truth and I think the truth...has been far from told in this kind of sordid tale of corruption within…the highest levels levels of, I think,…certain government agencies to allow this guy and his associates to run rampant through Boston…for several decades with impunity.
"[F]or almost 25 years he was known to be a vicious killer and not indicted for anything, not even charged with a misdemeanor, and I don't think we know the full story, and so the film is here to ask the question 'why?' and to dig deeper into why this happened."
"I actually thought the trial itself was going to do that, so I and many others who have observed this case…were disappointed that the trial was such a narrow inquiry into what made Bulger possible. The government did not allow…Bulger to present his immunity defense, and to call certain witnesses that would have blustered that immunity defense. Now, one can look at that immunity defense and say, 'Well that's absurd for Bulger to think that he had a license to kill...but that's his defense, and in our country…a defendant should have the right to present a meaningful and rigorous defense of his choosing and the fact that the government...did not allow any line of inquiry about his immunity defense which goes to the heart of 'was he an informant which is why he was never indicted?' or was there something else going on here…that should have been allowed to have been presented by Bulger in my opinion, so again the film is not...a defense of Bulger. I think [Bulger] should be in prison, and the film is not stating affirmatively that he was not an FBI informant, but there are many troubling questions swirling."
"For me what's interesting is, okay here's a trial, and strangely…the families of the victims feel some loyalty to the defense, the very guy who killed their loved ones. [W]hile they weren't condoning or excusing Bulger himself, the families of the victims felt a kinship with the defense attorneys because it was the defense attorneys who were asking the hard questions during the trial through cross examination that were attempting to expose…the deeper levels of corruption and to ask questions that the families of the victims deserve to know about the deaths of their loved loves. I've covered many trials over the years and I've never seen a situation where victims' family members were feeling sympathy and kinship with the defense attorneys of the perpetrator of the crime against them. So, to me…that was yet one more later of intrigue as to why we need to dig deeper into these questions of corruption... and why the…straightforward biopic…was not the way to go with this particular film."
For the record, Berlinger wants us to know that he doesn't think the FBI is all bad. "I don't think everybody in the FBI is a bad guy. Most people in the FBI want to do well…I don't think institutionally the FBI...is a corrupt organization by any stretch of the imagination - they do a lot of good - but in this instance, in the late '70s...and '80s, in their zeal to bring down the mafia...my opinion, they were going to choose who was going to live and who was going to die, and the zeal to bring down the Mafia I think blinded the FBI and the Department of Justice and allowed criminals to roam the streets and kill at will, and I think thats something that has largely been swept under the rug…"
"[W]e need to understand exactly what happened here so that it doesn't happen again and there evidence that it has happened again, where informants…have been allowed to kill and do all sorts of terrible things because…law enforcement has decided that there's a larger objective that needs to be achieved, and I think…when you have informants being…the grease that keeps…the wheels running in investigations…as long as informants play[ing] such major role, you're going to gave problems and we need to look into it…"
According to Berlinger, "If we want to have any faith in our institutuons, we need to know that they operate with integrity. If citizens aren't fully armed with information, it's bound to happen again [cases like Bulger's] and it has happened again."
Despite what some government officials want us to believe, this case isn't closed yet. "To me, if we don't know exactly what made Bulger possible and who was responsible, how can [we] close the chapter on that sordid history on two decades of...utter corruption in our institutions of law enforcement?" asked Berlinger.
Whitey will be released in June by Magnolia Pictures and played at Hot Docs this past week.