Thursday night’s Boston premier of the documentary Whitey: The U.S.A. vs James J. Bulger was one of the hottest tickets in town. The sold out event at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline was attended by the federal prosecutor who sealed Bulger’s fate last summer, and the attorney who defended him. Also at the premier were authors of books on Bulger, families of his victims, and a juror who helped convict the infamous mobster. This all led to several tense and emotional moments during and after the film.
The two hour documentary featured many familiar voices and faces that appeared on the nightly news during the Bulger trial last summer. And, for the first time since his arrest, we heard the voice of Bulger without the benefit of a wiretap or a courtroom plea. It begins with a call to his lawyer, J.W. Carney.
"As a teenager, I took many a beatin' at the police stations and I never cracked," Bulger says, telling Carney he was never a rat. "As a bank robber, I was captured, I pled guilty to free the girlfriend I was with, and I got a 20-year prison sentence, first offender."
When the lights came up, the audience applauded politely, but it was a far cry from the thunderous reception the film received at its premier this month at the Sundance Film Festrival. The Boston audience’s hesitant embrace of the film foreshadowed the verbal fireworks that came minutes later during a panel discussion.
"The warden wanted to know from me, 'Who's the guard, who's the guard, you son of a bitch, who'll talk?'" Bulger says in the film. "I told him I don't know what you're talking about. I spent months in the hole — a lot of pressure, naked, the whole thing. Ripped up my writin' paper. Letter would come in and they'd never give them to me. I went through a lot there and after four months for punishment they sent me to Alcatraz. And that was it — I never, never, never cracked."
The question of whether Bulger was an FBI informant is the focus of 14 minutes of the 2 hour documentary film. But panelist Dick Lehr and Kevin Cullen, authors of two separate bestsellers about Bulger, said that the film, by focusing on the question of at all, tilted the film in his favor.
Director Joe Berlinger disagreed.
"I was surprised at the level of dismissiveness to that question, because to me, whether or not he was an informant is central to understanding the Bulger saga," Berlinger said.
He and Cullen continued to debate after they left the stage.
"I put Kevin in the movie, saying, you know, if he was an informant, there still needs to be accountability and questions answered about how he was allowed to operate," Berlinger said. "And if he wasn't an informant, then it's a much deeper conspiracy that we should have answers to, so for [U.S. Attorney] Carmen Ortiz to stand on the courthouse steps and say it's done, to me it's not done. To me, the question of his informancy is not a sideshow."
"[Co-author] Shelley [Murphy] and I were certainly not dismissive about the claims that he was an informant," Cullen said. 'We investigated thoroughly, and we came up with incredible evidence that he was an informant, going back as far back as 1956. The reality is there's a lot of corroborative evidence that he was an informant. The only evidence — and I wouldn't call it evidence — is Whitey says he wasn't an informant. That's, to me, not very persuasive."
Murphy shared his concerns, but she praised aspects of the documentary:
"I thought they did a really good job by the victims," she said. "I thought that it was very compelling to see Steve Rakes, Patricia Donohue, Steve Davis."
Murphy’s comments were echoed by Donahue, widow of Michael Donahue, an innocent man who agreed to give a friend a ride home in May 1982, but did not know his friend was being stalked by Bulger.
"I thought is was good," she said. "It was very good … it kind of covered everything and I think they explained a lot that people probably didn't really know."
At another point during the night, the moderator, journalist David Boeri, carefully pivoted between former Bulger prosecutor Brian Kelly and Sean Donahue — the son of Bulger victim Michael Donahue. Donahue wanted to know why former prosecutors had not arrested Bulger associate Pat Nee — named by witnesses as the trigger man in the double murder on the waterfront — over the course of the trial last summer.
For all their disagreements, the filmmaker and many of the panelists expressed a common hope over the course of the night: that the documentary will help press the Justice Department to give a fuller account for why Bulger was able to carry out murders, drug dealing and extortion for many years under the noses of the FBI. It was the one element in the film on which there seemed to be no disagreement.