Is it possible for a documentary to be too close to its subject? I don’t mean to the degree that a documentarian gets lost in their subject, or loses some simplistic ideal of journalistic objectivity. I mean, are there some subjects for which a documentary has been made too soon after the events depicted for the film to show strong perspective or insight on its subject?
That would seem to be the case with Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger, Joe Berlinger’s portrait of last year’s highly publicized trial over Boston’s most notorious living criminal. Here Berlinger has three fascinating topics at play – the history of organized crime in Boston, the possibility of systemic corruption in the FBI’s relationship to said organized crime syndicate, and an eccentric and terrifying character at the center of it all – yet Whitey never quite coheres or fully expresses what exactly it wants to illuminate about any of these subjects, alone or in relation to one another.
Whitey opens with an incredibly disturbing story told directly to camera by a man whose life and family were seriously threatened by James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious Boston gangster involved in the Irish-American organized crime culture. With such a stark opening, Berlinger’s film at first shows the potential to demystify the gangster from all its Hollywood-emboldened trappings and clichés, showing a notorious criminal for the amoral monster he really is. But while Whitey spends some of its running time with the trails of blood and the human expense left in Bulger’s wake, it does not show a great deal of interest in Bulger himself in regards to either his myth or his history.
Despite the character study that the first part of the title suggests, no attempt is made to speculate on Bulger’s psychology or even elaborate his personal history in order to inform a viewership how exactly a South Boston son of a longshoreman could grow up to be one of the most famous killers in recent history, not to mention inspire a legendary status and outsized myth that led to Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed. Of course, part of this has to do with Berlinger’s inaccessibility to Bulger and the trial (the film reenacts court transcripts and we only hear Bulger himself through his lawyer’s phone), but regardless of the film’s methods, a thorough portrait of Whitey Bulger Whitey isn’t.
Berlinger’s true interest can be gleaned from the second part of the film’s title, as Whitey spends most of its energy detailing Bulger’s 2013 trial (which concluded in November). The film labors over one fascinating question: was Bulger an official informant for the FBI in their attempt to infiltrate the Italian-American mafia –which would mean he is, you know, a rat – or did he benefit from a close, unofficial, corrupt relationship with the organization – which would mean that the FBI’s entire history of investigating organized crime would be called into question?
The stakes are significant and certainly not reducible to Bulger. The trial, as the film reiterates multiple times, is not about Bulger’s guilt or innocence in regard for his crimes (his guilt is never in question), but rather Bulger’s criminal reputation and, by extension, the potential corruption and unaccountability of one of our most centralized and powerful law enforcement agencies.
But that puts Berlinger’s film in a structural bind. Whitey oscillates frequently between its chosen area of focus – between Bulger himself, his victims, the history of organized crime in Boston and the FBI question – so dizzyingly overcome with the richness of this trial that it never finds a consistent framework through which to examine it.
As he’s shown with his Paradise Lost trilogy, Berlinger is fond of an exhaustive approach to the bigger, more implicating questions that arise from highly publicized investigations of criminal acts. But Whitey, with all its newsworthy topicality, feels like it was assembled so hastily that it can resonate as little more than informative overview of questions raised during a trial less than a year ago.
By the time the film returns to its opening subject to close its final minutes, Whitey has come so far from the horror described in those initial moments and the attendant possibilities therein that the specter of another, better film on this subject cannot help but resonate through its end credits.
The Upside: An informative documentary about a fascinating trial – the subject matter here is compelling no matter how it’s made
The Downside: The film never focuses on what type of movie about Bulger it wants to be, leaving so many great possibilities in the dust
On the Side: Johnny Depp will play Bulger in Black Mass from director Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) that covers his correspondence with the FBI.