My Name is Bulger is not an apologia, but it is a defense.
If you live in New England, you are almost certainly aware of James “Whitey” Bulger and his infamous, criminal career. To a lesser extent, you are aware of his brother William Bulger, a long time Massachusetts politician. If you live outside New England, you might have heard of the brothers Bulger, but only because you saw the movie Black Mass, starring Johnny Depp.
If you are from Northern Ireland, as are the producers of the documentary My Name is Bulger, you might be less cognizant of the story and more apt to take an unbiased look at the affair. Or maybe you gave assurances to the subjects of the documentary, you would treat them with kid gloves in exchange for access.
This is a giant assumption on my part, but being a New Englander and having studied the Bulgers’ story for many years, it’s not difficult to conclude My Name is Bulger has an agenda that is anything but blind.
Partiality is not an automatic strike against the project. Few documentaries these days don’t have an axe to grind an ox to gore or someone to slay. Quite the opposite is the case with My Name is Bulger: its mission is to restore a reputation.
The film is an attempt to demonstrate that William Bulger and other Bulger family members are more than their mobster brother.
This is a natural impulse and even admirable in a way. Whitey Bulger was one of nine children. The other siblings each had large families of their own. That means dozens of relatives, all of whom led honorable lives, while having to bear the stigma of one very bad man. No one felt that onus more than William Bulger.
‘Billy’ Bulger rose higher than any other Bulger (even his criminal brother), yet was dogged his entire political career by questions about Whitey. The worst of it came for Billy after he left politics and became the President of the University of Massachusetts. It was around this time, in the mid-1990s, that Whitey went on the lam for sixteen years.
Whitey’s relationship with the FBI was exposed, how he and agents colluded to help each other in their own nefarious pursuits. Few wanted to know Billy’s opinions about politics, law, or governance. Instead, the questions centered around what Billy knew of Whitey’s activities, if he knew where Whitey was hiding, if he still loved his brother.
Whitey was captured in 2011 and convicted in 2013 of murder, racketeering, extortion—a full menu of the worst fare. He was killed in prison in 2018, and after his death it was finally time to turn the page for the Bulger clan. It was time for Billy especially, now 85 and nearing the end of his own life, to plead his case. It was time to tidy up the family name.
This is the mission or agenda of My Name is Bulger. Outsider status might give the producers a more impartial perspective, like changing venues in a highly charged legal case, but the makers of the documentary rarely display the kind of equanimity needed to convince the viewer the film is anything but a one-sided affair.
Most notably, the many interviewees, from Bulger relatives to authors and even former Massachusetts governors can’t seem to say a bad word about Billy. Viewers don’t need enemies brought in to attack the subject of the film, but they do require some sense of balance. And it only gets worse when the discussion switches to Whitey.
Recollections of Whitey as a man and a relative are almost always delivered fondly or with insouciance, and even when matters turn to his crimes, they are generally downplayed or characterized euphemistically—his “troubles” or “he was off doing something.”
It’s one thing to puff up Billy Bulger, but to attempt to cast Whitey as a mostly harmless uncle and brother who was somehow, at the worst, wayward, will be a bridge too far for many.
Several subjects do acknowledge Whitey did untoward things, and at least one relative grants there were “victims” of Whitey’s crimes, but before an admission like that can settle in, the film cuts to someone more sympathetic.
Most egregious in this regard is the testimony of Catherine Grieg, who spent many years on the run with Whitey. She remains in love with him, and, in typical fashion, claims she knew little about his criminal side. She sings his praises as a kind and gregarious man, and that during their time in hiding she never looked over her shoulder or thought about arrest.
I guess that wall full of money and guns, confiscated in the Santa Monica apartment where they lived at the time of capture, seemed as harmless as a retiree’s throw pillow to Grieg. I guess the fact that she wasn’t his first choice to take on the lam (Whitey swapped her out for another woman, Theresa Stanley, who early on decided she wanted no part of a fugitive life) didn’t shake her faith in his benign persona. I guess Eva Braun thought Hitler was pretty swell.
It’s surprising that the worst anyone can say about Whitey comes from former henchman Kevin Weeks, who seems unbothered by all the crimes he committed with Whitey. No, Weeks’s main beef is that Whitey turned out to be a government informant all the years he preached a code of silence. Murder, intimidation, cruelty—these are yawns. But giving info to the FBI. An infamnia!
My Name Is Bulger is engrossing, but it falls into the same trap William Bulger did all his life. In attempting to show Billy as his own very important, very influential man, the film has to dismiss or mitigate claims about Whitey. And before you know it you are on the subject of Whitey and have relegated Billy, again, to the background
But who exactly was William Bulger? Why should we want to look past his brother and take full measure of the man? The documentary frequently notes he came out of the projects of South Boston and made something of himself.
Billy was elected in his 20s to the Massachusetts legislative body and stayed there for more than three decades, eventually rising to become the powerful President of the Massachusetts State Senate. In other words, he lived on the public dime his whole life. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what did he accomplish for the people he was serving?
There’s only a minute or two devoted to the notion that he helped clean up corruption and valued education. But there are no details or witnesses presented to say, “Because William Bulger helped pass this law, I was better off.”
Indeed, to the contrary, if you read a book such as Michael Patrick McDonald’s All Souls Day, it reveals a South Boston in the 70s and 80s destroyed by crime and drugs. Murder, violence, addiction, suicide overran the once great neighborhood, and much of it can be traced back to Whitey Bulger.
Did Billy, champion of the people in the State legislature, do anything to take on this scourge? Did he turn his power on his brother and the crises he was creating? Ted Kaczynski’s brother struggled with turning in his infamous ‘Unabomber’ sibling, but in the end he did it. When William Bulger had the opportunity to say something during Congressional hearings in the 2000s about Whitey, he took the 5th.
Some admire this loyalty, but I think it’s misplaced. From my perspective, William Bulger was after power for power’s sake, and taking on his brother and the crimes for which he was responsible would have prohibited this pursuit. The documentary really doesn’t do much to dispel these notions or get at exactly what Billy hoped to achieve with a life in politics.
If one strolls around South Boston today, one will no longer see large, Irish families living in three deckers. ‘Southie’s’ defining characteristic is its new restaurants, high rise apartment buildings, hotels, convention centers, and yuppified population. South Boston might be cleaner and safer, but it’s not the place Billy seemed to cherish or strive to create.
The legacy Billy desires is to not be defined by or compared to his brother, but to achieve that you need more to admire than political spin and gimcrack. He worked hard, gave a good speech and had a charming way about him, but to me, the documentary fails to reveal anything more deeply unique or commendable about the man.
The documentary, as a piece of filmmaking, does a good job of not calling attention to itself. It allows the players to speak and flows well from one segment to the next. Despite this, there are too many crimes of omission to ignore in My Name is Bulger, and there is one very deliberate moment of editorializing I could not countenance. Just before the final credits roll, several post scripts etch the screen. One concerns James Connolly, Whitey Bulger’s one-time FBI handler.
Connolly is little mentioned in this documentary, but he is widely known as the corrupt FBI man who used Whitey to bring down other figures in organized crime, all the while protecting his asset from investigation and tipping him off to the indictments so he could skip town before it all came crashing down.
Connolly was himself arrested and convicted and spent close to 20 years in prison (released in 2021) for corruption and accessory to murder and extortion. My Name is Bulger adds a line at the conclusion of the film claiming Connolly’s conviction is one “few believe.”
Obviously a jury was convinced of his guilt, and claiming “few believe” in his culpability is like a lawyer pounding the table when short on facts—hoping high emotion will trump paucity of evidence.
It’s a silly epigraph to tack on, not just because Connolly hardly features in the documentary, but also because any sympathy constructed to rehabilitate the Bulger name, after this clumsy coda, crumbles.
My review of My Name is Bulger might appear harsh, but I did enjoy it. Everyone deserves their day in court. Whitey got his literal one and was justly punished. Billy and the rest of the Bulgers should have theirs in the court of public opinion. This documentary attempts to provide it, but its obvious biases impede vindication.
BLAST RATING: 3 OUT OF 4 STARS