In light of the recent spate of thinkpieces written without having seen the movie in discussion, I do not wish to continue this shameful trend by discussing the (at the time of publishing) unseen “Black Mass.” But, based on information released to the public, I think I can safely make two assumptions.
1. The film’s protagonist is notorious Boston criminal Whitey Bulger. Whether Scott Cooper decides to portray him as a hero, a villain, or an antihero, Johnny Depp’s character will be front and center, which will likely have the effect of encouraging the audience to see the events through his eyes.
2. The film presumes as fact the assertion that Whitey Bulger was an FBI informant. It’s even listed in the one sentence logline on IMDb.
This constitutes a basis for great cinema, and I do look forward to reading the reviews out of Venice for Scott Cooper’s film (and then likely seeing it myself). But great cinema does not always align with reality. For that, thank goodness we have documentarians like Joe Berlinger willing to interrogate the established narrative.
He calls into question a key assumption about Whitey Bulger – namely, that he served as an informant for the FBI. Sure, he was likely in leagues with federal agents like John Connolly. But was his involvement officially sanctioned by the government, or merely part of a larger cover-up within the government to hide their implicit sanctioning of Whitey’s rampant murders?
That’s the key question in “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger.” Though it might sound like the basis of a conspiracy theory documentary found in the dark corners of YouTube, Berlinger’s thought-provoking piece is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” At the very least, he urges a look at the case with a critical eye that takes nothing for granted. The film lays out the facts about a ruthless mob boss who knew how to play his cards right with every major party at the table, so we should discount no explanation.
Plus, Berlinger’s documentary focuses its attention on the people we should think about when we think about gangster stories. “Whitey” scarcely ever shows its titular crime lord and never reenacts his horrible deeds. Berlinger instead places a great deal of emphasis on the collateral damage taken by Whitey – the victims he claimed and the loved ones left behind. These people deserve an explanation because they deserve justice. Maybe “Whitey” cannot provide that definitive answer, but it’s at least a good start.