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[catherine persona]‘My Name Is Bulger’: A tale of two brothers

2021-09-08

  For Whitey’s younger brother William, scorning publicity was something very different: a matter of seemingly perverse principle. Publicity, even more than money, is the mother’s milk of politics. Just ask the Kennedys. For 35 years, Bill Bulger served as a legislator, including a record-setting 18 years as president of the Massachusetts Senate. He then had the highly visible job of president of the University of Massachusetts. Yet his distaste for the media and the public aspect of being a public figure was as much a part of the Bulger persona as being from South Boston.

  So the most remarkable thing about Brendan J. Byrne’s documentary — for anyone who’s followed Bill Bulger’s career it’s shocking, really — is the degree of cooperation Byrne got from the Bulger family for this joint portrayal of the two brothers. It started out as a profile of Bill, Byrne says, but he quickly realized he couldn’t tell the story of the younger brother without also telling the story of the older.

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  The Bulger brothers as children, from “My Name Is Bulger.”discovery+

  Whitey’s not heard from. He can’t be. In 2018, he was murdered in prison. We do hear from his longtime partner, Catherine Greig. The interview is billed as a “world first.” “World” sounds over the top. But Byrne is from Northern Ireland, and he’s suggested that his Irish roots helped account for the family’s opening up to him.

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  Byrne’s been given access to family photographs and home movies. Five of Bill’s nine children are interviewed, as are his late wife, Mary, and his and Whitey’s late older sister, Jean. Bulger, who is now 87, himself is interviewed. We see him singing at the family dinner table and as a spectator at the South Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade.

  By the standards of Kardashian culture, this access is C-SPAN-sedate. By Bulger standards, it’s up close and very personal — and never more so than when Bill is filmed alone with Whitey’s closed casket, reciting an“Our Father.” The scene verges on the voyeuristic. It’s the most startling thing in the documentary, even more than the efforts of the Bulger children to try to humanize their uncle. They acknowledge his criminality, of course, but describe him as a more complicated figure than the public image. Although Whitey did monstrous things, he “was not the monster they made him out to be,” his nephew Jim says.

  Catherine Greig in “My Name Is Bulger.”Discovery+

  In fairness, Bill’s children are almost prosecutorial compared with Greig. She recalls “a brutally hot day” while she and Whitey were hiding out in California. Spotting an elderly couple by the side of the freeway with car trouble, he spent an hour helping them change a tire. “That’s the kind of person he was: a very kind, giving person.” Monty Python fans might find themselves thinking of the Piranha Brothers sketch: “He was a cruel man — but fair.”

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  Whitey associates tell a different story. Kevin Weeks bears a somewhat unnerving resemblance to Steve Schirripa, Bobby on “The Sopranos.” What he has to say about Whitey rings truer than what Greig recalls. “After he killed someone, he’d be nice and relaxed. It was kind of like taking a Valium or something. It was over and that was it. It was done, and he’d be on to something else.”

  Kevin Weeks in “My Name Is Bulger.”Discovery+

  Byrne has certain filmmaking tics — aerial views of Southie alternate with atmospheric nighttime shots of Southie — but he knows what he’s doing. The documentary moves right along, packing a lot into slightly more than 90 minutes. To give just one example: So much of Bill Bulger’s animus against the press, and vice versa, dates from the 1970s and the court-ordered desegregation of Boston schools. Bulger was a leading opponent. The film’s handling of the busing crisis is far from comprehensive — that would be a whole different documentary — but it’s impressively concise and hears out both sides.

  The Bulger story has been told many times, perhaps in this newspaper more often than anywhere else. Part of that story is the longstanding enmity between Bill and the Globe. The paper comes in for about two minutes of full-on slagging, as well as the occasional critical comment elsewhere. Fair enough. Yet Byrne also gives a prominent role to Globe reporter and Whitey biographer Shelley Murphy. Longtime Boston Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis is interviewed, too, as are former governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld.

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  Bill Bulger at his desk in “My Name Is Bulger.”Discovery+

  As Murphy notes, the story is like something out of an old-time Hollywood movie. Two brothers grow up in the Southie projects. Whitey ends up on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. Bill becomes arguably the most powerful elected official in Massachusetts.

  Going on the lam with Greig, Whitey eludes capture for 15 years. This makes him internationally famous. Johnny Depp plays him in an actual Hollywood movie, ”Black Mass.” (Benedict Cumberbatch plays Bill.) Byrne includes a brief excerpt. Far more entertaining are several clips of Bill presiding over the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast.

  In 2003, Bill is forced to resign the presidency of UMass. His testimony before a US House committee about being in touch with Whitey after he fled indictment leads to a storm of criticism. The story now leaves Hollywood behind to become biblical. It’s a version of Cain and Abel, only instead of murdering his brother Cain murders his brother’s career.

  From “My Name Is Bulger.”Discovery+

  This is the contradiction at the heart of “My Name Is Bulger.” It seems to think that in defending Bill it needs to see Whitey’s reputation as a tool used against Bill by Bill’s enemies. In fact, Whitey’s reputation was a tool Whitey used against everybody; and the nature of that reputation — or, rather, the acts it sprang from — made no exceptions for family. Bill’s worst enemy wasn’t the Globe or Republicans or suburban liberals; he could handle those easily enough. Bill’s worst enemy was Whitey. That wasn’t Whitey’s intention — any more than getting caught out there in Santa Monica was. But that’s what his actions made him.

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  It’s a family member, Whitey’s and Bill’s sister Jean, who states the case here against Whitey most damningly. “You don’t even know if he has the capacity to look beyond what his own little life is and how it’s affected anybody else. I’m not sure he goes there.” No, he was too busy taking the equivalent of a Valium or something.

  ★★?

  MY NAME IS BULGER

  Directed by Brendan J. Byrne. Streaming on Discovery+. 92 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, graphic discussions of criminal violence)

  Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.

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