Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger is no stranger to the subject of crime. The film that launched his career, “Brother’s Keeper” (1992, co-directed with Bruce Sinofsky), was about a semi-literate New York farmer railroaded into jail for murder. The “Paradise Lost” trilogy, three films about teens known as “The West Memphis Three,” dug into kids accused of killing other kids by prosecutors and local media all too willing to believe they were part of some Satanic cult.
His documentaries, be they about those criminal cases or an oil company behaving badly in the Amazon (“Crude”) are exposes of a broken “system,” civics lessons and pieces of rhetoric, movies with a call to action attached.
“An informed citizenry is a basic function of our democracy,” Berlinger, 52, says.
But informing that citizenry and urging action was trickier in his latest documentary, “Whitey: United States of America v. James V. Bulger.” Writing in The Playlist, Drew Taylor acknowledged “that same strain of antsy, activist spirit” common to many of Berlinger films, even though this time his “target is more elusive and the goal harder to pin down.”
Whitey Bulger, for those not from Boston and unfamiliar with the inspiration for “The Departed,” was boss of the Irish mob in New England for decades. Master of assorted criminal schemes, his hand was seen in many a mob murder in greater Boston. He seemed untouchable, which some attributed to his politically powerful brother, Massachusetts Senate president Billy Bulger. And when he was finally indicted, somehow he slipped away and lived on the lam for 16 years.
“How was this guy allowed to operate?” Berlinger wanted to know. “The victims’ families deserve closure and compensation for wrongful death. We need to understand how our institutions of justice operate so that this sort of thing never happens again.”
Not content with earlier reporting, which took the F.B.I.’s version of how Bulger eluded capture — that Bulger was “an informant,” Berlinger set his sights on the case the defense was never allowed to bring at trial — that Bulger somehow had been granted “immunity” by an F.B.I.
“In their zeal to bring down the Italian Mafia, perhaps a noble objective, they allowed the Irish gangsters to run roughshod through the city.”
Berlinger wondered why the Feds broke their own rule for who to turn into an informant — typically someone much lower on the chain of command.
“If you are targeting the head of the gang, it means the FBI is endorsing and running that gang,” Berlinger says. “Bulger was using his connection to the Feds to eliminate other mobs, his competition.” But Berlinger thinks that it stands to reason that after reigning in the Italian mob, that Bulger would have been next. Instead, he was still on the streets.
“People died. The families of those people deserve answers.”
Berlinger’s film, which gives voice to both the leaked F.B.I. explanation for Bulger’s years of freedom — “Did they leak that he was an informant thinking somebody would kill him, and cover their tracks?” — and others, that Bulger had exchanged protection with a prosecutor whose life was under threat because of years of prosecuting mob cases.
“I’ve been exposed to the argument that the chain of command at the F.B.I. had this institional knowledge that these guys, the Irish mob, were doing bad things,” Berlinger says. “The government decided who should live and get to run a mob, and who should die. It wasn’t just a few bad apples, it was institutional and it wasn’t isolated to Boston.”
The pushback against “Whitey,” the movie, has come largely from the local Boston press, which reported government leaks and, Berlinger says, “bought into the narrative” that the Feds sold. Careers were made, book deals came from it. After a screening of the film in Boston, Berlinger got a taste of that from all those who got book deals, consulting deals and sold a lot of newspaper reporting and fleshing out the government’s version of events.
“There’s been a blind spot to looking at the other possibilities of how he stayed out of prison all those decades,” all of which played out in a trial in which Bulger’s efforts to tell his version of how he dodged the law all those years were thwarted by a judge, Berlinger says.
“To me, it’s the height of intellectual dishonesty to be unwilling, as a journalist, to look at the other side. You’ve made your reputations on this story and you can’t accept the possibility you were misled and got it wrong?”
This time, Berlinger wasn’t making a film trying to free someone wrongly accused. “He’s a brutal killer and deserves to be behind bars,” the filmmaker says of Bulger. He was just looking for answers, digging into what he believes is a larger conspiracy.
But interviewing mobsters, picking at the case of a very dangerous man and the dangerous men he ran with surely posed risks. Did Berlinger ever fear for his life?
“People keeping asking me that,” he says, laughing. “I wasn’t concerned. I had more fear of being sued by Chevron or with what could happen to me in the jungles of Ecuador filming ‘Crude’ than I did making a movie about Whitey Bulger.
“But raising the question about a deeper government conspiracy that allowed him to operate? If anything, I’m afraid of ending up on a government ‘No fly’ list, somewhere, for asking questions about that.”
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