• Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger

    Released By: Magnolia Pictures
    Released On: October 14, 2014
    Director: Joe Berlinger
    Cast: James "Whitey" Bulger, Stephen Rakes, Tommy Donahue
    Year: 2014
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    The Film:

    With such a massive career in organized crime, it's a little surprising that more people aren't familiar with James J. "Whitey" Bulger. Though he certainly didn't make the newspapers as often as John Gotti did, one would think that his almost three decade reign as THE man in South Boston, not to mention being the inspiration for the character of Frank Costello in Martin Scorcese's, "The Departed" would have prompted more than a blank stare from most at the mention of his name. But Whitey was certainly well known in South Boston and by numerous law enforcement agencies, and his 2013 trial resulted in multiple convictions for murder, money laundering, and extortion. With a run-of-the-mill criminal as the subject, "Whitey" would be an A&E Biography special. But as Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost) presents in his documentary, the story of James J. Bulger is a long and complex tale that would not only point the finger at the man himself, but also uncover some pretty nasty (alleged) corruption in the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

    Though Scorcese's loose take on Bulger (as well as much of the folklore surrounding him) tended to glamourize Whitey as a Robin Hood-like character who stood up against the Italian mob and was loyal to Boston....maybe committing a crime or two in the name of helping the families that he grew up with...Berlinger's film presents no such image. In Stephen Rakes' opening interview, we hear how he and his wife invested all they had into a South Boston liquor store, before receiving a visit from Bulger and one of his associates, who told Rakes they were hired to kill him at the request of other liquor store owners in the area. Offering Rakes an olive branch, they told him they would spare his life if he handed over the store to them; when he refused, they told him that it would be terrible for his kids to grow up without a father. Watching Rakes break down in the first couple of minutes of the film, describing how helpless he felt not being able to protect his children, sets the tone and exposes the cruelty of the man who would end up on trial years later.

    But while there is essentially no doubt in the mind of the viewer that Whitey Bulger is guilty of all of these crimes, Berlinger's documentary chooses to focus on another aspect of the Bulger story. Starting at the beginning with his rise to power and his takeover of some of the nastiest gangs in South Boston, Berlinger poses a question: How did Whitey get through as many years of rampant criminal activity as he did, without even getting a parking ticket? The answer seems to lie with FBI Agent John Connolly, a friend of Whitey's from the early days. And while the FBI and other law enforcement agencies insist that Whitey was their informant, testimony from others involved implies that the FBI may have been involved with Bulger for cash payouts, and the bigger picture agenda of keeping the Italian Cosa Nostra out of South Boston. Strangely enough, Bulger's agenda throughout the trial fits with this latter theory, in an effort to clear his name not of murder and extortion, but of being a rat for the government.

    Berlinger has assembled a huge collection of material here, from interviews with witnesses and victim's family members, law enforcement agents from both sides of the informant argument, and analysts that dig through Whitey's alleged "informant file" and find a number of discrepancies. Confidential documents that were locked away from the public, FBI agents convicted of murder, a murdered witness, and multiple other shady dealings are uncovered, leading the viewer to wonder what in hell goes on behind the closed doors of upper-tier law enforcement?

    Tight editing, compelling stories, and a whole lot of "truth is stranger than fiction" makes the 107-minute runtime fly by in a way that is reminiscent of Berlinger's Paradise Lost; and much like that story, the viewer walks away knowing that they will never know the entire story.


    Magnolia presents this film on blu-ray in a 1.78:1 transfer that looks pretty damn good, considering the variety of source material that includes everything from decades-old surveillance footage to new interviews. Most of the footage is sharp and well balanced with no compression artifacts or other flaws.

    The DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track is more than adequate as most of the film focuses on dialogue, but occasional use of the surrounds and subwoofer are a nice touch. Levels are mixed well, with no distortion or hiss.

    First up in the extras are some Deleted Scenes (12:58) that contain more interviews with families of the victims and authorities, and talk a little more about something not featured in the film...the actual takedown of Bulger.

    The Sundance Film Festival Interviews (4:26) are just that....interviews with those involved at the Sundance Film Festival.

    A Theatrical Trailer and Promo Reel for Magnolia round out the supplements.

    The Final Word:

    Berlinger's look at the trial of Whitey Bulger is not just fascinating, it's essential for anyone interested in the case, in organized crime, in government corruption, in anything related. Magnolia does the film justice with a swell-looking transfer and some neat extras. Recommended.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!