I finished off my first MIFF experience with the true crime documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger (2014). If you can imagine a documentary version of a Dennis Lehane novel or Ben Affleck’s The Town (2010) you can pretty much imagine this film. It’s a gangster flick brought to life basically.
The film tells the story of the trial of James J. Bulger, a gangster near the top of the FBI’s most wanted list who had been on the lam for a pretty incredible 16 years. The film takes a look at the crimes(mainly murder) that he committed, the way these crimes impacted on the families of those involved and the rampant FBI corruption that allowed Whitey to rule with an iron fist over Boston and evade capture for so long. The film is insightful when looking both at the gangster and those supposedly enforcing the law. It gives a glimpse into the strange gangster’s psyche or code where it is totally fine, laudable even, to be a murderer. But to be an informant is an unforgivable sin. If anything though, the FBI come off looking even worse than the gangsters in this film. As an outward looking and publicity seeking organisation, they were so obsessed with taking down the Italian Mafia that they let the Irish such as Whitey Bulger do more or less as they pleased. Which is to say nothing of the rampant and overt corruption that amongst other things tipped Whitey off in regards to his impending arrest, allowing him to have an extra 16 years of freedom and which continues to ferment within the organisation even today. No wonder the FBI did not agree to be interviewed for the film.
If there is a major criticism to be levelled at the film, it is that it’s not a particularly cinematic as far as big screen docos go. Coming out of CNN films, which I did not even know existed, the film often feels more like a CNN news report and not a film experience to fork out your money to see in a cinema. The entire production feels very slick and polished, probably a little too much so. A gangster story should have a bit of roughness around the edges I feel and that may have given this film a little more soul. The film starts off focused quite heavily on those who were affected directly by Whitey Bulger – victims of standover tactics and relatives of murder victims. This is the part of the film with the most heart and whilst the examination of the role of FBI corruption becomes more interesting as the film goes on, I would have preferred a greater focus on these families.
Though it never elevates above being slick and pretty good at what it is aiming to do, Whitey is generally successful as an indictment on the FBI and also as the story of an individual gangster and the horrors he brought to bear on people. Also, if hearing plenty of that distinctive Boston twang is your thing though, this may well be your favourite film of all time.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs