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Interview with Joe Berlinger: WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

January 20th, 2014 | Posted by Michelle Nelson in Sundance 2014

On June 22, 2011, the infamous gangster James “Whitey” Bulger was arrested with his girlfriend in Santa Monica, Califoria, after being in hiding for 16 years.  WHITEY: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, directed by documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, takes us deep within the trial, giving a fascinating look into this criminal empire, and also revealing the institutional corruption within our own legal system.  WHITEY made its world premiere at Sundance 2014, and we sat down with Berlinger to learn more about the film.

Whitey was captured in 2011, and the trial began in 2012. When did you begin the film project?

I have long been fascinated by this story because I’m a True Crime fan. But there was a glut of media about him: over a dozen books, The Departed (which is very fictionalized and barely resembles the Whitey Bulger story), there are two films in the works and a TV series. And I just never thought I would have anything to add because I never thought that Whitey would be captured.  I thought he had been given a free pass by the FBI to hightail it out of town amid of all the corruption.

Once he was captured and it was announced there was going to be a trial, that’s when Vinnie Malhotra from CNN Films and I were talking about doing something together and he actually suggested this. I have to give Vinnie credit because it was like suggesting the perfect idea for me because this is something I have long wanted to do.

Before you began, what was the primary goal of the project?

In the end of November 2012, his trial date was announced and it was clear he would be brought to justice. That represented for me a unique opportunity to add to what’s already been done and to do something different, using the trial as a present tense springboard to separate the man from the myth, to explore the reality versus all of the legend which has been built up around him, some of which has been perpetuated by the media. I wanted to try and find out who this person really is, and explore the routes of the corruption that has never been definitively explored.

I, like many people, thought the trial was going to go into those questions that any trial of Whitey Bulger would have to go into. My great disappointment in observing the trial was that it ended up being very narrowly defined by the government. Important areas of inquiry were excluded, most notably his inability to testify about his immunity deal.

Observing the trial while it was unfolding informed what for me became the mission of the film: not to take Whitey Bulger’s side, not to in any way make an apology for the vicious brutal killer that he is, but to use the film as a vehicle to explore the many important questions of institutional corruption that should have been explored in this case.

The government will tell you this was about the conviction of James Bulger, that the FBI and the Department of Justice were not on trial. And in some ways I agree. But in one large way I disagree. My belief is that there was little risk, almost an infinitesimal risk, that Whitey Bulger would ever emerge from that courtroom other than in shackles. And therefore, even as how preposterous that some people claimed his immunity defense is—that he was given a license to kill by a federal prosecutor—no matter how absurd anyone thinks that idea is, what is the harm in allowing Bulger to mount a full and meaningful defense? Because the city of Boston, the victim’s family, and anyone who cares about our institutions and how justice is served can benefit from those questions from being openly explored. That is the mission of the film.

I am not saying that Whitey was or wasn’t an informant. I am not saying his immunity defense was bona fide. But allow the guy to present his arguments to the fullest so that the dirty laundry can be aired and the people of Boston can decide for themselves what the level of accountability is for allowing him to reign unprosecuted for 25 years.

I was surprised at how closely you worked with the defense, and that they were even at the Q&A after the screening.

I invited the prosecutors to Sundance. In fairness, I have a very good relationship with the prosecutors and I’m not trying to make the prosecutors out to be the bad guys. In fact, I took great pains in the movie to separate the current prosecutors in this case from the larger institutional corruption that occurred that allowed Whitey to operate. Brian Kelly and Fred Wyshak were the ones 20 years ago that agitated for and pushed these indictments forward because they were new to town and said why is this guy not being prosecuted and pushed against institutional resistance in the very young DOJ to bring an indictment against Bulger. So I think they deserve a lot of credit for much of the corruption that has already been exposed. But in this trial, they were put in the odd position of having to defend the institution that they once pushed up against in order to bring these indictments to fruition.

I did invite them to Sundance and they couldn’t make it for lots of reasons. It looks like they will be present in Boston as part of Sundance USA. Sundance chose nine films to go to nine cities, and Whitey was chosen for Boston because it’s the obvious place for it.  Many people from all sides of the case will there, the prosecutors, the defense, the victims’ families, Kevin Weeks [a former member of the Winter Hill Gang] may be there…

In the film, one particular thing that Kevin Weeks said stood out to me: “What do you expect? I’m a criminal, I lie.” Everyone you spoke to shared his or her version of the truth. Out of all the statements you heard, was there one that you think is the more reliable?

Truth is a perspective so I don’t discount people’s perspectives. But the point of the film is really about the subjectivity of reality. But there are subjective beliefs and actual facts. And the question of whether or not Whitey was an informant, and whether or not he had immunity were central issues in this case, and there is a truth to that. I can’t tell you which side is correct. I think the point of the film is that these questions haven’t been answered and need to be answered.

Whitey wasn’t allowed to testify in court. Was the phone call [Whitey spoke to his attorney on a recorded call] a version of his testimony?

Just to clarify, it wasn’t that he was not allowed to testify, he had the right to testify, but he chose not to because so many of his witnesses were not allowed to be called during the trial. And because the immunity defense was excluded in a pre-trial hearing a judge determined that he was not allowed to bring any of those witnesses, and any of that line of inquiry into the courtroom. He felt testifying without the benefit of having those witnesses brought into the courtroom and without being allowed to present his full version of the truth would have put him in a very weakened position to not allow the truth. That’s his position, I’m not saying that’s the truth.

I am highly aware that the phone call was the defense and Mr. Bulger’s desired message being sent to the film. It’s a perspective I wanted in the film and it’s a historical perspective because no one has ever heard Whitey willingly participate in an interview.  The only audio of Whitey comes from 30-year-old wiretaps and recently at trial a couple of minutes of recorded conversations when he was talking to relatives. But those were unwilling and unaware that he was being captured on audio. The only audio of him willingly participating in a media project is in this film. It is by no means, necessarily, the truth.

The viewer needs to ask him or herself: is the filmmaker (me) being equally played by being a vehicle for his views? On the other hand, I feel like one needs to hear directly from him so the audience can make up their own mind about what they have seen.

You talked about separating the man from the myth. From Whitey’s perspective, he is a man who has committed so many horrific crimes and yet at the end of the day he wanted to be clear that he didn’t kill women and he wasn’t an informant. Why was it so important for him to protect this image? Was that a part of keeping his own myth alive?

You have to ask yourself: is this an extremely narcissistic, pathological criminal who wanted to sanitize his image on his way out of life? Because gangster code is that you don’t kill women and you don’t rat on your friends. So is it that or is it that he does has a criminal ethic and he really didn’t kill women and he wasn’t a rat?

In some ways, that’s one of the things that fascinates me.  One of the underlying themes of all of my work is the subjectivity of media, and that we accept it as objective truth. All media is subjective, including documentaries. I am fascinated with what goes into mythmaking, how we spin narratives, and how news is delivered because news by its nature tends to reduce things to their black and white simplicity when life and situations are usually more nuanced and gray. So from a media meta aesthetic standpoint, I am interested in those questions about how myth becomes fact and fact becomes myth.

You got incredible access for this film. Was there any pushback?

I am surprised at how much access we got. The 800-pound elephant in the film is the fact that the FBI declined to be interviewed for the film. They didn’t want anything to do with it and that’s a shame. I think it unnecessarily sends a message that they probably didn’t intend to communicate by not participating in the film. It would have been great to have heard from them.

- Michelle Bryant

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