You may be wondering what gangster thriller “Black Mass” (2015) about James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) has to do with our neck of the woods but you will be surprised to know. I say this because the movie is supremely political, having little to nothing to do with that notorious South Boston gangster and his peculiar “alliance” with opportunistic FBI man John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).
It is about America’s ill-fated “alliance” with Osama bin Laden, and who knows who else, and the dire consequences the US and the world have had to face ever since. You can see this early on when Connolly is trying to convince his FBI superiors to work with Bulger – he hates being called Whitey, as blond and blue-eyed as he is – as an antidote to the Italian mafia. He convinces Bulger to work with them this way too, since he cannot take on the Italian crime families muscling in on his territory by himself. His only supporter, John Morris (David Harbour), says they stand to gain more through this alliance than lose and then he uses this exact phrase – “bring him in the tent”.
Those were Lyndon Johnson’s famous words, referring to having Robert Kennedy in JFK’s administration: “I’d rather have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” They both hated each other’s guts, but politics, as always, is the art of compromise. Later in the movie, Bulger is referred to as an “asset.” This sounds more like CIA speak than FBI speak. You are also told that Bulger underwent LSD experiments in prison to reduce his sentence, leaving him even more violent, paranoid, and mentally unstable. The idea here is that the federal government made a monster out of him, which is precisely what happens as the alliance progresses”. (LSD was a famous mind control and interrogation drug used by the CIA).
Bulger goes from a low life hood to a crime lord, murdering people in broad daylight and introducing drugs to teenyboppers at school. Even his supposed tip-offs against the mafia, apart from the first one, are actually fed to him by Connolly (taken from other informants). So, sure they got rid of the mafia, but look what took its place!
This is what happened in Afghanistan during the Cold War. The Americans worked with the devil to beat the so-called greater evil, only to go from an opponent you could reason with to a much more virulent and unpredictable enemy. And this is still true to this day. The Obama administration handed Iraq over to Iran on a silver platter, only to have to contend with the “Islamic State” (IS) and now that cauldron of violence has spread to Europe with the latest Paris bloodbath.
It is also quite notable how into moral hypocrisy – a common characteristic of violent fanatics – Whitey Bulger is, which might explain the irritating title. Before he goes into hiding you see him at a cathedral; he cares for the poor and the old and is obsessed with appearances. Hence, the peanut scene early in the movie – in which he kills one of his men because he is more uncompromisingly Irish than he is – and the scene where he kills one of his hitmens’ girls (while talking about family values). Not to mention his advice to his infant son that the only thing to feel guilty about is getting caught while breaking the law.
If anyone thinks I am going out on a limb with these interpretations, terrorism is explicitly mentioned in the film. Bulger hands over a massive weapons cache to the IRA so they can better fight the British “occupier” (another hint). Moreover, Boston was the site of the horrendous marathon bombings involving two migrant Muslims, the Tsarnaev brothers. Rumour has it they were informants for the FBI but were turned afterwards by the very Islamists they were supposed to spy on. Much the same has been said about IS.
There certainly were elements in the intelligence services in the West that wanted to cooperate with these people, seeing them as a possible “assets” against foes in the region, namely Syrian President Bashaar Al-Assad. Even a former Saudi general noted how there are in fact regimes paying IS off, either to not attack them or to go attack others. The larger “function” served by IS, he surmises, is that it is like Pac-Man, gobbling up all the smaller terrorist groups. The irony is, as the older, and more established terror groups are eliminated, the new kids on the block get stronger and stronger and pose a greater threat than the old guard. IS is more of a global phenomenon that Al-Qaeda ever was, with converts swelling its ranks and from the secular and liberal West no less, bringing with them all their managerial and technical skills too.
The real tragedy of Black Mass is that the whole system ends up being corrupted by such coalitions of the willing. You can see this in the dinner sequence at Connolly’s plush suburban house. Bulger asks Morris about the secret to the wonderful steak they just ate. He says it is a family secret then spills the beans and Bulger pretty much threatens his life warning him not to be so talkative or else. Bulger claims he is joking but we know better. Later Bulger drops in on Connolly’s wife, who refuses to serve him, claiming she is not feeling well. He then touches her up to threaten her as well, reminding her that she is embarrassing her “Southie” husband.
There is also Bulger’s brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), the very honest senator who keeps as far away as possible from his brother’s criminal career, only to be permanently tainted thanks to Connolly. The man is a symbol of how you can make it big in the US, whatever your social origins, without having to resort to crime – proof that the country is still the land of opportunity and that his gangster brother has no excuses. The same holds true of Connolly, since he had a good career in the FBI as a crime-fighter, but his ambitions and his sense of personal and ethnic solidarity got the better of him. Bulger and Connolly grew up together; “street kids” as Connolly explains to his straight-as-an-arrow wife.
Connolly refuses to testify against Whitey when the FBI clamps down on the operation. Earlier in the movie, he tries to prevent the District Attorney from investigating Bulger by going to the senator. He even tells Billy point blank that where they grew up, written rules do not count – blood and loyalty do. Fortunately the senator turns him down, only to lose his job and his sterling reputation when his brother gets exposed. And he was a patriot who did a lot for Boston.
It is a mess of a movie but the ugly international reality it denotes is even more of a mess, so no complaints on that count. I guess we will have to wait for a sequel to find a way out!
Emad El-Din Aysha received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Sheffield in the UK and taught, from 2001, at the American University in Cairo. From 2003 he has worked in English-language journalism in Egypt, first at The Egyptian Gazette and now as a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas