Interview: Joe Berlinger of “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger”

Posted on July 5, 2014 at 8:00 am

Joe Berlinger is one of my favorite directors and it was a treat to talk to him about “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” his new documentary on the trial of the notorious gangster. We know Bulgar was a crook. What this movie explores is the manipulations and cover ups from the law enforcement that kept Bulgar from being prosecuted for decades.

If you had a chance to interview Whitey and he agreed to tell the truth, what would you ask him?

The most important question is the central assertion to his claim that he had on immunity deal with Jeremiah T. O’Sullivan and the reason that’s such an important question is it goes to the heart of whether or not he was an informant and if he was not an informant the level of corruption and abuse of our institutions of justice is like significant.

The film raises the question of how much crime you can allow an informant to commit to hold on to his credibility.  Presumably killing is over that line.

David Boeri is a WBUR Reporter who says that as long as informants are the mother’s milk of criminal investigations we have to be really careful because on the one hand you they can’t blow their cover but it doesn’t mean they should be killing people with institutional knowledge because that puts the government in the position of picking and choosing who should live and who should die and that’s not the role of government. You know to empower the Irish mob so that they can bring down the Italian Mafia; there’s something inherently wrong with that. And it wasn’t just limited to Boston. We see the same thing in Gregory Scarpa’s cas.  There’s no question he was a major informant there to bring down the Colombo Crime family and over 50 people were killed under his watch.  There’s something wrong with that system. One of our bedrock principles of our legal system is a defendant should be able to present whatever vigorous defense he wants with the presumption of innocence. Again this is not a wrongful conviction cases, but the guy should have been able to present his point of view. whitey_united_states_of_america_v_james_j_bulger_xlg_2

I love the line in the movie from one of the witnesses: “Of course I lied; I’m a criminal.”  What do you do when everybody that’s testifying is a liar by definition?

The three star witnesses for the government are murderous thugs. I mean could you imagine somebody going up for trial for 20 murders and getting 12 years? He’s a serial killer and yet the government treats him as a star witness, now how is that guy incentivised? It’s what I love about the movies, it is a true Rashomon experience and yet the truth rises to the top and something stinks.  The real story has been swept under the rug because it’s just implausible on so many levels that all that murder and mayhem and bad behavior is solely the responsibility of one relatively low level agent and his corrupt supervisor, it’s just not plausible.

I really want to know how truthful is the claim that he had a deal of protection and frankly it’s an important question that is the major disappointment that I had in observing the trial because that was a question that was not allowed to be aired.  Even before the trial began, the judge ruled that the immunity claim was not allowed to be brought up in trial so that was disallowed as a line of inquiry.  It’s a complicated question but he should have been allowed to bring that up at trial because it’s a central question to the saga and I was disappointed that the judge would not allow because I think it was pretty clear that no matter what happened at trial Whitey Bulger was not going to walk out of that preceding a free man.  Right from the start he admitted to being a drug dealer and loan shark.

I was really interested in the comments on the file by the woman who’s an expert on informants.  Normally when someone gets immunity, isn’t that very well documented?

Well there are two levels, if there was a personal deal of protection like, “Hey, keep me from getting bumped off from the mob and I’ll keep you from being indicted”. That’s not going to be documented.  That’s a personal deal of protection.  There were were all these hallmarks of a fake file and in civil proceedings and in the proceedings against Connolly the government acknowledged that much of that informant file was faked by John Connolly. You can’t have it both ways.  If you’re going to say you faked the files in the proceedings against Connolly then let’s talk about where is the real file if he was an informant? And there are just so many things that don’t hold water.  Again I don’t know whether he was or wasn’t but something stinks.  If he was an informant then there’s some basic protocol that wasn’t being followed by like targeting the head of the gang, he was the head of the gang.

The first person we see in the film is a man who was threatened by Bulgar and is looking forward to testifying against him. But he was murdered before he could appear in court. At the end, the film tells us the murder was unrelated. Really?

I can see it’s a legitimate coincidence but to me the importance of it is that when Rick’s body was discovered on the news and that rippled through the courtroom, everyone — reporters, observers, family members — all were debating, almost like as if they were debating a horse race or a Red Sox game, they were debating with equal plausibility whether or not it was in the government interest to knock him off or in Bulger’s interest to knock him off. I was just kind of stunned by the fact that the government was even considered a possibility, which is demonstrative of the complete erosion of faith in their institutions that they would actually believe they might have a hand in it. That demonstrates why this trial should not have been so narrowly focus on confirming the obvious. The obvious is okay he’s crook, we know it let’s let Bulger talk about whatever he wanted to talk about.

This story has so many people and so many incidents and so many boundaries being crossed, how do you try to help people keep that straight? How do you address that is a filmmaker?

It’s a very challenging story and in addition to that there’s a certain subtlety that I hope the audience gets. I was very conscious that there is a certain amount of the conventional story that you need to tell to set the table and then you have to start picking that conventional story apart and do it in kind of a seamless way. I was so worried that some people would walk thinking, there’s no problem with the conventional story. So the challenge is you start with what everyone says is the truth and then you start showing what the issues are with while still maintaining that that’s still a possibility. You know, people expect to be told what to think and many filmmakers believe you have to have a very singular point of view. I’ve always in all of my work tried to embrace multiple points of view and then hope that the truth rises to the top. And look, I do want to say for the record I don’t think everyone in law enforcement or everyone in the FBI is rotten. I think the majority of people in law enforcement and the majority of people who are in persecution take their job seriously.  And actually I think Wyshock and Kelly are the heroes of this story on a certain level because they came to town in the early 90s being sent from other places said, “what the **** is this?” And against the will of their own Justice Department they were fighting vociferously to bring about those indictments, the indictments that ultimately led to this proceeding. They fought tooth and nail for those against their institutions but at a certain point at this trial they now were put in the position of defending the institution that they once fought against in order to bring these indictments. And you can’t serve two masters; you can’t defend an institution that screwed up while you’re simultaneously trying to get to the root of the problem.

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