Film Review: Whitey

Posted: November 30, 2014 in Livin' in the USA, Movie Reviews
Tags: , , , , , ,

Whitey(Whitey, documentary directed by Joe Berlinger, CNN Films / RadicalMedia, 2014)

reviewed by Chaz Bufe, publisher See Sharp Press

To call Whitey disturbing would be gross understatement.

It’s the story of James “Whitey” Bulger, a vicious criminal, and his protection by the FBI and Justice Department. Through the 1970s, ’80s, and early ’90s,  the FBI and federal prosecutors protected Bulger, who was the head of the Winter Hill gang (“Irish Mafia”) in Boston, as Bulger and his underlings engaged in drug dealing, extortion, loan sharking, and committed dozens of murders. Why? The feds claim that Bulger was an informant. Bulger in turn maintains that he bought FBI agents and federal prosecutors.

This in fact was one of the main points of contention at Bulger’s 2013 trial, even though it wasn’t relevant to the charges against him(!): he knew that the feds had him dead to rights, and he openly admitted to dealing drugs, but he wanted to prove that he wasn’t a rat, that he was a “buyer, not a seller” in relation to the FBI and federal prosecutors.

The evidence Berlinger presents supports Bulger’s contention. His FBI file reveals that Bulger provided the feds not a single “name” during his long career as an “informant.” He provided no actionable information. So, why would the feds maintain to this day that Bulger was an informant? There seem to be two answers: one is that the feds fraudulently used Bulger’s name when they obtained warrants to bust the Italian mob in Boston in the 1980s.

The second is that FBI agents and prosecutors, including the head of the Boston FBI office and the head federal prosecutor in that city, were on the take. Bulger’s FBI handler, John Connolly, was  sentenced to 40 years for his dealings with Bulger. And Connolly’s boss, John Morris, admitted that he took cash payments from Bulger. Yet Morris served not a day in jail for it. The head federal prosecutor in Boston at the time of the Mafia indictments in the 1980s, Jeremiah O’Sullivan, also protected Bulger, allegedly for protecting O’Sullivan from the Mafia. In one instance, where FBI agent Bob Fitzpatrick had obtained an informant to testify against Bulger in a murder case, both Simon and O’Sullivan refused to put the informant in the witness protection program. And the FBI tipped off Bulger about the informant. As a result, the informant and an innocent neighbor were gunned down by Bulger and his lieutenants.

The crowning touch came in 1994 when Bulger was finally indicted. Connolly (or possibly another corrupt agent) tipped off Bulger prior to the indictment, and he disappeared for 16 years until he was arrested in California.

But why would federal prosecutors still maintain that Bulger was a valuable informant, when his FBI file and the proven FBI corruption show that he was indeed a “buyer, not a seller”? If they would admit that he wasn’t an informant, the Mafia convictions from the 1980s (based in part on fraudulent warrants) would likely be overturned, the FBI and Justice Department would be revealed as engaging in wholesale corruption, and the FBI and Justice Department would face massive civil liability.

So, the federal prosecutors in the Bulger trial handled the turncoat mobsters from Bulger’s criminal gang with kid gloves–one of them John Martorano, who admitted to killing 20 people, only got 12 years in exchange for his testimony–while they viciously bullied Fitzpatrick, the FBI agent who obtained the murdered informant. Again, why? Fitzpatrick’s testimony revealed FBI and Justice Department corruption, and that Bulger was a “big problem” and worse than useless as an informant; and the prosecutors were intent on maintaining that Bulger was a valuable informant and that Connolly was simply a rogue agent.

In terms of documentary film making, Whitey is about as far as you can get from Ken Burns’ emotionally manipulative, maudlin The Civil War, considerably different from the works of Errol Morris, who’s an integral part of his films, and even more different from the works of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, who star in their films. Joe Berlinger is almost entirely absent from Whitey–in a single scene the brother of a murder victim addresses him as “Joe,” but we never hear Berlinger’s answer. Instead of inserting himself into the film, Berlinger tells the story through interview excerpts and statements from, among others, reporters who covered Bulger’s criminal career and trial, Bulger’s attorneys, Bulger himself (with the questions asked by one of his attorneys), former FBI agents, federal prosecutors, and surviving victims and the survivors of murdered victims. He fits all of these pieces in this complex tale into a multifaceted, horrifying mosaic. There’s no wasted motion (or emotion) here, and that’s refreshing.

Whitey fell through the cracks this summer, but is now available on Netflix.

Highly recommended.

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