The bad guy in "Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger" is ostensibly Bulger. But Joe Berlinger's densely detailed new documentary about the legendary Boston mobster is disturbing on so many levels it's hard not to wonder why Bulger was the only one on trial.
Whitey, as Bulger is known, has many claims to infamy, including his spot on the FBI's most-wanted list for 12 years right behind No. 1-ranked Osama bin Laden. His run as head of the Winter Hill Gang spawned a library full of books and Martin Scorsese's film "The Departed."
There's no doubt Bulger ran a lucrative, illegal, lethal operation. Murder, it seems, was for his personal pleasure as much as payback. Described in grisly specifics by cohorts of the Irish mob leader, for Bulger killing was a blood sport; he liked getting his hands dirty.
Berlinger's documentary picks up the story just as Bulger is headed to trial in late 2012. With a 33-count indictment that reads like a laundry list of classic mobster behavior — extortion, gambling, murder, drugs — Bulger had been on the lam for 16 years after a tip that he was about to be arrested on racketeering charges in 1995.
In a coup for Berlinger, we actually hear from the man himself in recorded phone conversations with one of his attorneys addressing some of the charges. The last time Bulger's voice was heard publicly was in wiretap conversations when he was under investigation in the 1990s. It's easy to believe this is a man who should be feared; his low growl carries rage right through the telephone wires.
What led Bulger to agree to say anything is what incensed him about the case: the government's claim that he was an informant — in mobster parlance, a rat. It was to be one of the cornerstones of his defense until the court ruled it inadmissible.
In contrast to Whitey's outrage, his attorneys methodically lay out their argument. It's a blame-shifting tack, arguing that the mobster, through payoffs and protection, was running members of the FBI and the Department of Justice — doing the kind of favors that led the alleged good guys to turn a blind eye to Whitey's illegal operations. The film includes enough supporting evidence that this is easy to believe.
Still, Berlinger never lets the film turn into a Bulger apology. A great deal of time is spent detailing the evidence against Bulger via interviews with his victims, investigators, prosecutors, a cache of Boston journalists who've followed his exploits for years, members of his gang and reams of documents. Newspaper and broadcast clips of past bad deeds, the manhunt, the arrest and the trial help move things along. But the sheer volume of information poured into the film is overwhelming and at times hard to follow.
What is most unsettling about "Whitey," though, is the way it raises more questions than answers. The documentary does a good job of exposing a cesspool of corruption — members of the legal system and law enforcement agencies of all stripes are right in there alongside Bulger.
Frustration with the legal system and law enforcement is voiced not only by Bulger's advocates but by the mobster's victims. On the courthouse steps and in interviews with the filmmaker, they remain steadfast in their belief that part of the responsibility for Whitey's crimes rests with failures in the institutions charged with protecting the innocent.
That frustration runs like a major chord throughout the film, and it's impossible not to think it is one shared by the filmmaker. Berlinger is a concise and precise documentarian, even when his topic is the emotional meltdown of a heavy metal band, which was explored to such provocative effect in "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster." His willingness not to let go of a subject until he's gotten to the bottom of it is certainly present in "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," which earned him and co-director Bruce Sinofsky a 2012 Oscar nomination.
That effort began in 1996 when the filmmakers first started digging into the horrific West Memphis child murders and the outsider teens convicted of the crimes. Many others over the years were involved in the fight to free the teens, which ultimately led to a deal that freed them, but Berlinger and Sinofsky proved dogged in chronicling it.
"Whitey" ends with news reporting his conviction on most counts. The 84-year-old gangster will spend the rest of his life behind bars. The newspaper headlines and TV broadcasts that flash across the screen speak of justice being served. But by then Berlinger's film has left its mark. The victory feels hollow, and the case of the United States v. James J. Bulger feels far from closed.
'Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger'
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles