What do Johnny Depp, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, PeterFacinelli (he of “Twilight” fame) have in common? They’re all involved with plans to put the story of Boston’s most notorious mobster on the movie screen. Throw in Jack Nicholson’s turn in “The Departed” — his character, Frank Costello, was loosely based on Bulger — and you can’t help asking: Why? What is it about this story that’s so compelling?
This book, by two Boston Globe reporters who have spent decades covering the Bulger story, provides the answer. If you locked director Martin Scorsese, screenwriter Nick Pileggi and TV producer David Chase in the same room for a month, I doubt they would come up with anything as rich in scope and details as the real-life tale of Whitey Bulger. In fact, it reads so much like a movie that it’s probably best to look at it as what they call in the film business “a treatment.”
We begin with a sweeping aerial shot of the neighborhood where Whitey was born, raised and reigned: Southie, as South Boston is known, a blue-collar, insular Irish enclave “whose residents valued loyalty to family, neighbors, and neighborhood over all else.” Dissolve to a sepia-toned shot of Southie streets in the 1940s, where a muscular teenager named James Bulger, one of six kids in a working-class family, has already become something of a neighborhood legend: shunning school, running with a bad crowd, with a criminal record from early adolescence on. (“The rest of the Bulger kids were well behaved and studious,” the authors write. “Whitey was just the wild one, the black sheep.”
We throw in some foreshadowing here. One of Whitey’s brothers, William “Billy” Bulger, is already demonstrating the political skills that will one day take him to the presidency of the state senate. We’ll also see another Southie resident, a kid named John Connolly, regard Whitey Bulger with something approaching hero worship.
We move quickly through Whitey’s prison years — he spends nine years in various federal facilities for a bank robbery gone wrong — but we’ll linger long enough to note that Bulger volunteered as a guinea pig in 1957 for a series of experiments with LSD, experiments that produced horrific hallucinations that should make for great footage. (“Suddenly, blood seemed to explode from the walls and drown him. The inmate sitting next to him turned into a skeleton.”)
It’s when Bulger comes out of prison in 1965 that the plot begins to thicken (and the blood begins to flow). Whitey returns to a Boston where the battles between the Irish-dominated mobs of Southie and the Italian-dominated gangs of the North end have left a pile of bodies and a power vacuum that Bulger quickly fills. Moreover, that worshipful kid, John Connolly, has now become a celebrated Boston-based FBI agent with one obsession: crush the power of the Mafia, now that FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover has belatedly recognized that organized crime does, in fact, exist. Under the theory that “the enemy of the enemy is my friend,” and drawn to the flamboyant lifestyle of these outlaws, Connolly puts Bulger together with a fellow mobster, recruits them as informers and becomes their protector, in effect immunizing them from the law as long as they help him against their common foe — and, astonishingly, tipping them off about prospective informers, which directly leads to at least four killings.
What we now have is an embarrassment of riches in telling our story. You want bloodshed? At least 19 people allegedly die by Whitey’s hands — rival mobsters, suspected informants and — if his onetime colleagues are right — two women whom he strangles to death. (For details, if you must, go to a competing book, “Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss,” by two ex-Globe reporters, Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill.)
When Whitey allegedly killed bookmaker-turned-killer Louis Litif in February 1980, he used an icepick, stabbing Litif 38 times. “The puncture wounds perforated Litif’s liver,” a federal judge wrote later; according to Lehr and O’Neill, this is “a wound thought to cause exquisite agony.”
You want film noir? Whitey and colleagues bury three victims in the dirt basement of a house in the neighborhood. You want scenes right out of “Goodfellas”? How about Whitey, his partner Steve Flemmi, and a group of FBI agents dining at Flemmi’s home as his mom cooks up an Italian feast.
But this movie’s not going to be smooth sailing. While apologists like brother Billy may have seen Whitey as “a bad good guy,” Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy paint a different picture. He did not keep drugs out of Southie. He extorted money from dope dealers. He is charged with killing fellow gangsters and innocent bystanders alike. We are not talking Robin Hood here.
And the story’s penultimate chapter sags. Tipped off by the FBI’s Connolly of an impending indictment, Bulger and a longtime mistress skipped town and spent 16 years on the lam (as the old Warner Brothers films would have it), most of it living the overwhelmingly uninteresting life of a retired couple in Santa Monica. And his capture? No “Made it, ma! Top of the World!” shootout, but a peaceful arrest after a former neighbor living in Iceland saw his photo on CNN.
Whitey’s going on trial in June in Boston on a string of federal charges; virtually all of his onetime colleagues have turned on him. His FBI protector Connolly will likely spend the rest of his life in prison for enabling some of Whitey’s murders. Billy Bulger has been forced out of his job as University of Massachusetts president for his evasive explanations of just how much he knew and did to protect his brother.
But it’s still one hell of a story. I wonder what Mark Wahlberg is up to?
America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice
By Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy
Norton. 478 pp. $26.95