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It’s been quite a while since we’ve had a decent real-life career criminal to ogle over in the media. It seems the days of Al Capone, Dillinger and Bonnie & Clyde have long since passed. Since then, we’ve had plenty of fictional films to fill in the void, but even THE GODFATHER and SCARFACE stop short of the infamous “based on a true story” appeal that gets us truly salivating.

WHITEY: UNITES STATES OF AMERICA VS. JAMES J. BULGER is a film that perhaps attempts to fill this void. This is not the story of the rise of a criminal empire, but the complicated and calculated decline of a lone wolf. This film indirectly chronicles the trial of James J. Bulger, a ruthless criminal loose cannon who ruled Boston with an iron first for some three decades. I say indirectly, because the film deals more directly with the emotional and legal aftermath of Bulger’s past actions.

In all fairness, WHITEY is not a dramatic film intended to entertain viewers, but rather a documentary intended to educate and raise questions. However, I could not help but feel trapped within a Bermuda Triangle of conspiracy theories and finger-pointing. As a documentary, I hope for a more engaging story that captures my attention through human experience and factual revelation. Instead, WHITEY ends up feeling like a 120-minute block of 24-hour cable news programming.

Director Joe Berlinger is best-known for his PARADISE LOST trilogy of documentaries, arguably one of the more monumental pieces of non-fiction filmmaking. Personally, I feel — not all — but a small portion of that is due to the hot button content and that BROTHER’S KEEPER is his most accomplished film, thus far. WHITEY never seems to establish a connection with the viewer. The two men we feel the most empathy for are given relatively minimal screen time in comparison to the film at large. Stephen Rakes, a man terrorized and extorted by Bulger, a man whose livelihood was taken and whose family was threatened — allegedly — by Bulger, ends up the ultimate victim.

For me, the priorities in WHITEY seem to be slightly misguided, focused more on the sensationalist nature of the story than the human element and the facts. Then again, this is a relatively recent story, fresh in our collective minds. This is a hot bed of media interest, now with Johnny Depp beginning production on a feature film about the criminal. In some sense, I feel the documentary suffers from having jumped on the bandwagon too soon. Had Berlinger allowed the topic to simmer and settle for a few years, allowing emotions to subside and minds to regain some objectivity, it could have made for a much more compelling piece of cinema.

Clearly, there is a sense of urgency built into Berlinger’s work. Documentary filmmaking, to some great extent, relies on the filmmaker’s ability to move at a moment’s notice and seize opportunities as they occur. After all, this is real life, not scripted tales that can be shot and re-shot until you get just the right take. With the PARADISE LOST trilogy, there was an even greater sense of urgency as these films were, in part, an effort to help support a case to free these three young men from death sentences for crimes of which they were wrongfully accused.

WHITEY has some strong moments, especially later in the film as we continue to follow Steve Davis, the brother of victim Debra Davis and regular friend in circumstances with Stephen Rakes. On the flip side, the brutal honesty and complete lack of remorse shown in interviews by Bulger collaborator Kevin Weeks is both repulsive and fascinating. I could not help but give the man credit for knowing, without compromise, what he was and not apologizing for that, but still feeling this was an unforgivably terribly human being.

In the end, once I managed to get there, I found myself somewhat informed but mostly exhausted after having waded through two hours of slowly paced, unfocused filmmaking. I am a patient man when it comes to viewing films. It is truly rare for me to have that tell-tale moment when you look at your watch during a film, but this occurred a couple of times in the second half of the film. Had this been strictly a cable television special, which is how it felt, I would be less critical, but as a feature-length film, I fear WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA VS. JAMES J. BULGER is equally long and insignificant as its title.

WHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA VS. JAMES J. BULGER opens in theaters and Video On Demand on Friday, June 27th, 2014.

Opens in Los Angeles Friday, July 11th at Laemmle’s Royal in West L.A.

Overall Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Stars


Hopeless film enthusiast; reborn comic book geek; artist; collector; cookie connoisseur; curious to no end