by Alvin G. Burstein
The biopic’s title prepares us for a consideration of moral perversion. Johnnie Depp’s chilling portrayal of James (Whitey) Bulger, the Boston mob boss, his bloody career, and his relationship with the FBI provide that opportunity, raising questions, some of which go unanswered.
The film describes Bulger’s transition from a member of the Winter Hill mob of “Southies,” Boston toughs at war with the Italian mafia centered in north Boston, to a crime kingpin in that city, one whose odious tentacles extended abroad. His success, perverse indeed, was grounded in his murky collaboration with the FBI as much as in his elaborate murderous sadism.
From a dramatic point of view, Depp’s depiction of Bulger is extraordinarily effective. I find myself feeling an unreasoning reluctance to suggest an Oscar because of the evil of his creation. And the film director’s blood-splattered horror scenes of torture and murder will doubtless gratify any inhibited or displaced aggressive drives in eager audiences.
From a psychodiagnostic point of view, the movie poses a question about whether the portrayed Bulger is a psychopath, a person without the capacity for empathy and lacking a moral sense or whether he is a sociopath, someone whose morality is deviant, a person whose social surround and consequent morality deviates from that of the larger society.
Many of Bulger’s associates would appear to merit the second diagnosis: sociopath. They are loyal to their fellow crooks, see law enforcement as the enemy, and the larger society as naïve in its inhibitions. Bulger himself, despite the film’s nod in the direction of his having a love for his mother and his son, violates a basic law of his deviant tribe by becoming what the FBI called “a top echelon informant.” In that capacity, he was later claimed to have contributed to the conviction of many members of the mafia. But he also escaped prosecution (until many years later) for serious crimes of his own.
A central question raised by these anomalies is the degree to which the FBI itself displays a kind of sociopathic readiness to collaborate in some criminal activities, perhaps even murder, in order to pursue other illegal practices. In the film, the FBI’s collusion with Bulger is regarded as the work of a few bad apples, but some commentators have suggested that a code of silence operates at the FBI level as well. Some have suggested that the Bulger’s success in avoiding capture for a decade and a half was due to the desire by the FBI to avoid questions about a practice instituted by J. Edgar Hoover in 1961, to develop “live sources within the upper echelon of the organized hoodlum element.”
The film does not go deeply into two fascinating loyalty issues. One is the tie between John Connolly and Whitey Bulger. Connolly was a fellow Southie who joined the FBI and who recruited Bulger as an informant. Connolly was one of the few of Bulger’s associates who did not agree to testify against his old buddy in return for a reduction of sentence. Like Bulger, Connolly is still in jail. And then there is Bulger’s younger brother, Billy. A long-time member of the state senate, Billy went on to become president of the University of Massachusetts. When it became clear that he had been lying to investigators about being in touch with his fugitive brother, he was forced to step down. What he has said about Whitey is, “…I cared about him deeply and I still do.” There is no indication that he ever suggested to his brother that he turn himself in.
One is left wondering about how Whitey, the sadistic murderer, feels about them.