Taking a look at the Whitey Sweepstakes

Damon and Affleck ‘muscle’ their way onto the crowded
cinematic turf to bring Jimmy Bulger & Co. to the Big Screen

It’s getting crowded in Whitey Bulger biopic field. The news that local-boys-made-good-Hollywood-wise Matt Damon and Ben Affleck plan to bring Jimmy Bulger’s saga to the big screen should surprise no one around here. After all, they grew up in and around the city and first proved their grasp of the turf together in the film “Good Will Hunting.” A few years ago, Damon shone in Martin Scorcese’s “The Departed,” with Jack Nicholson’s ruthless Southie gang honcho based loosely on the Whitey persona. Affleck’s stellar direction of “Gone, Baby, Gone” and his recent turn in “The Town” further point to the near-inevitability that Damon and Affleck would jump into the Whitey “sweepstakes.”

The news has to be disheartening for others who have already invested time and toil in their telling of the story. Two words – Warner Brothers – reflect the instant clout and backing that Damon and Affleck bring to the table along with their proven track record.
That cinematic muscle is bad news for the other pending Bulger projects. Producer Graham King, who nabbed an Oscar for “The Departed,” has been stitching together a film with former Bulger employee/hitman John Martorano. Local actor Peter Facinelli plans to produce a film drawn from Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob, by Edward MacKenzie and BU professor Phyllis Karas.
Another acclaimed producer, Brian Oliver, has been working to bring Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob, to life on the big screen. My view is that this splendid book, by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, should provide the linchpin of any serious attempt to tell the brutal and compelling story of Bulger on-screen with any semblance of objectivity and accuracy. Of course, both of those words tend to ebb or vanish once a studio takes artistic and creative liberty with even the best of books.
Playing fast and loose with the facts for “dramatic effect” is – has always been – Hollywood’s credo. No matter that the real story itself is almost incredible; producers, directors, screenwriters, or, God help us, actors and actresses believe that they can make the real story even “better.”
Given the gnarled tale of Whitey Bulger, the possibility exists that no matter which project gets to the big screen first, the so-called facts of each frame will mostly lie low, fatuous, and false. The evolving Damon-Affleck venture reportedly has Damon playing Whitey, Affleck directing the film while also tackling the role of FBI agent John Connolly, and brother Casey Affleck playing Bill Bulger. Although I enjoy the work of all three, one can’t help but wonder about the Hollywood distortions not only about the central characters, but also about families and victims.
A while back, Sebastian Junger’s riveting bestseller The Perfect Storm was a box-office success with Mark Wahlberg as one of the co-stars. Not only were the book and movie both excoriated by many for taking huge liberties with the true, tragic story of the ill-fated Gloucester fishing boat and its crew, but the families of the victims also cried foul over the depictions of their loved ones. The thought makes me imagine the “real” conversations that Hollywood will cook up between Whitey and Bill Bulger, the conveniently muddled timelines and events that will fill the script, the innuendos and outright fabrications – “artistic license” – that will merge fact and urban fable.
In a GQ interview, Damon was asked if he’ll “play Whitey as a young gangster or a geezer fugitive.” The actor replied that he’s not yet certain, but that “if it’s a straight biopic, we’ll do it over a period of time.” He added, “But it’s always a question of what part of the story do you tell, and biopics are always a little cumbersome. So do we find another way in? We’re still figuring it out.”
Just a suggestion, but Matt, Ben, Casey, and company could go a long way toward “figuring it out” by consulting with Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, who are working on a new book that they want to be the biography on Whitey Bulger. Of course, the actors would have to figure where Brian Oliver, who had the foresight to turn first to Black Mass, fits into the mix. One hopes they will. As local guys, Damon and Affleck likely recall Lehr’s and O’Neill’s brilliant and courageous reporting on the unholy alliance between Bulger and the FBI. A number of other authors have profited off the Bulger saga by piggybacking on Black Mass – often without attribution.
Can Damon and Affleck get it right? Perhaps – but don’t hold your breath hoping that “artistic license” won’t blur fact and fiction, no matter how well intentioned the boys of “Good Will Hunting” are.