Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Most films focusing on criminal trials aim at revealing the accused’s guilt or innocence. In Joe Berlinger’s "Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger," however, there’s no doubt that Boston crime lord James "Whitey" Bulger was a very bad guy with tons of criminal misdeeds including murders to his discredit, and those who followed his 2013 trial will know he was convicted of a number of these and sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars. The real question of culpability that provides an element of suspense here, ironically, concerns not the obvious baddies but the ostensible good guys: How much of Whitey’s career was facilitated and furthered by corrupt government figures, especially ones in the FBI and U.S. department of justice?
Whitey, after all, ran the Irish mob in Boston for nearly 30 years without a single arrest, even a misdemeanor. (He was apprehended in California in 2011 after fleeing his native state and living for years under false identities.) How did he get away with it? Pretty much everyone concedes some level of official corruption and complicity, but the issue is what he did to get it. In his trial, Whitey admits to bribing (often with lavish cash Christmas "presents") pretty much every officer of the law he came into contact with. But some maintain that he gave the lawmen something else as well: information.
Was Whitey an informant? Strange that such activity is not criminal and thus is nowhere mentioned in the counts against Bulger, yet it becomes a central issue in the trial, the defense vigorously denying it and the prosecution everywhere asserting and implying it. That, it appears, is because both sides assume that Whitey will be convicted of most of the charges and then locked away forever. The real issue of contention, then, is reputation; or to use the term of choice, "legacy."
If Whitey ratted out his fellows, he is the lowest of the low, a man without honor anywhere in the universe. If, on the other hand, this is all a smear, then he can still portray himself as a "good bad guy" and hold his head up in the criminal underworld. A similar concern is attached to only one other issue: whether he killed two women (with his bare hands, no less). Good bad guys don’t murder the fairer sex, so Whitey’s defense team takes pains to deflect the charge onto other miscreants.