Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger: Sundance Review

Unfocused, overly long documentary raises provocative questions.

Joe Berlinger examines the FBI's complicity in Whitey Bulger's tenure as Boston's crime lord.

In the Paradise Lost trilogy, Joe Berlinger got comfortable with crime-and-punishment sagas that take detours, stall out and blister up with new revelations long after observers thought they knew what to believe. In the case of the West Memphis Three, convolution went with the territory. The case of notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, though, seems more amenable to tight-focus investigation: Having been the subject of innumerable books and news stories, not to mention informing Martin Scorsese's riveting The Departed, the story is at this point best served by a doc that picks one angle and digs deep.

Berlinger's Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger is not such a film. Sprawling and sometimes a grind at over two hours, the doc is both cinematically uninspired and journalistically jumbled, muddying its potent main arguments -- that the Boston FBI is much more to blame for Bulger's reign of terror than the public understands; that the Department of Justice may be turning a blind eye to those failures -- by obsessing over family members of Bulger's murder victims and offering much more information than we need on the members of his gang who turned on him in the end. The doc will likely draw its share of viewers on CNN (the net's CNN Films division is presenting this RadicalMedia production), but many will feel they're watching a miniseries that has been wadded up into a single-serving event.

Having begun the project only after a trial date was set near the end of 2012, Berlinger approached the defense team and was granted what seems to be a remarkable degree of access but may actually be illusory intimacy: We sit in the office of lead attorney J.W. Carney, Jr. and listen in on phone conversations with his client, in which Bulger takes pains to dispute some of the charges against him -- particularly the widely accepted claim that he was an informant for the FBI. According to Bulger, it worked the other way around: Bureau agents, including the now-incarcerated John Connolly, were actually his informants, taking his cash and tipping him off when their uncorrupted colleagues were close to catching him in a crime.

Most observers have written off this claim, saying that Bulger knew he'd go to jail for his crimes and simply didn't want to die being thought of as a rat. But the defense team gives Berlinger some compelling reasons to doubt this: Their examination of the FBI's informant file leaves it looking like something that could have been compiled with no help from Bulger. Moreover, discussion of the "Top Echelon" rank of informant illustrates how it could be to an agent's advantage, career-wise, to pretend to have access to such a high-level criminal. If Bulger's cooperation was, in fact, elaborate fiction, and that had been revealed during the years he was at large, countless cases in which his "testimony" was used could have been overturned. Mafia kingpins would have been freed; the government might have been liable for millions in lawsuits.

In press materials, Berlinger complains that the Bulger trial "excluded any inquiry" into the governmental policies that may have enabled Bulger's crimes. But it seems naive to expect a trial of one of our era's most famous criminals to have allowed law-enforcement corruption to get in the way of a conviction. A more compelling complaint -- one that the film makes -- is that the Department of Justice has not gone further in pursuing what the film claims to be rampant corruption in Boston. When someone like John Morris, an FBI supervisor who admitted doing all sorts of things that benefited Bulger, can wind up serving no time for his crimes, something is clearly rotten.

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Berlinger makes plenty of headway exposing this rottenness, talking to people like Massachusetts state police officials who pushed to bring Bulger's Winter Hill Gang to justice while other agencies dragged their heels. Editors Joshua L. Pearson and Alex Horowitz should have convinced Berlinger to focus on this part of the film, ditching many other interviewees and losing the conceit that this doc is about the trial itself -- therefore eliminating the need for innumerable shots of an empty courtroom, with transcripts and reenacted voice-overs substituting for live trial footage. (Cameras aren't allowed in the courtroom for federal trials.) Clearly, this film is not about the trial of Whitey Bulger; it's about the lawmen Berlinger believes should be put on trial in addition to Bulger. Maybe the director thinks he has another trilogy on his hands. A more focused first installment might have gotten the ball rolling.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Production Company: RadicalMedia
Director: Joe Berlinger
Producers: Joe Berlinger, Caroline Suh
Executive producers: Sidney Beaumont, Jon Kamen, Dave O'Connor, Justin Wilkes, Amy Entelis, Vinnie Malhotra
Directors of photography: Robert Richman, Etienne Sauret
Music: Wendy Blackstone
Editors: Joshua L. Pearson, Alex Horowitz
Sales: Cinetic
No rating, 129 minutes