Sunday, October 15, 2006

'Departed' takes snitch abuses to big screen

One of Grits' favorite topics, the toleration by law enforcement of crimes by confidential informants, has found a venue on the silver screen with one of Hollywood's biggest directors.

Martin Scorcese's new movie, The Departed, fictionalizes a real-life scenario Grits has written about in the past: The case of Whitey Bulger, the FBI's supersnitch who built up the Irish mob in Boston while ratting out his competition among the Italians. Anyone from Boston would recognize Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello character as a paean to Bulger, though the bloody incidents in the movie were fictionalized.

Kathy and I saw the movie last night. (Spoiler alert.) The Departed ups the ante on the crime-boss-as-snitch scenario by telling the story of an undercover police officer (Leonardo DiCaprio) and one of Costello's plants in the police department (Matt Damon), as each side, the police and the crooks, tries to discover the informants in their midst, each using their own various means of pressure and deceit.

Much of the rest of the country hasn't heard of Bulger, but many of the highest profile cases against Italian mafia figures on the East Coast from the '70s through the '90s were made with Bulger's help. In the end, though, it turned out the FBI was protecting their prized informant, even in the face of evidence he'd ordered many murders himself and used his position as a snitch to accuse his competitors while building up his own criminal organization.

This movie had a great cast, though I wish the screenwriter had taken a bit less artistic license and focused more on a plot from the real-life Bulger case. (There will be plenty of fodder for future films, one imagines, in Bulger's story). In the movie, Nicholson's character dies at the hand of his own snitch, who by then is a high-up detective in the Boston Police Department. In real life, Bulger's FBI handler told the mob boss he was about to be arrested, and he fled before authorities could capture him. He is still at large.

Still, the fictionalized layering of snitching and counter-snitching emphasized the thick moral dilemmas faced as both law enforcement and criminal cartels have come to rely so heavily on informants. For most of us, trust and loyalty are positive values that facilitate all communications, both at home and at work. Snitches create loyalty only to violate the trust that forms between people.

Even for a good cause, we tend to feel uncomfortable with that, and as seen in Scorcese's film exploration, even a worthy cause can end up in a bad place because loyalty doesn't form overnight. DiCaprio's character must commit increasingly violent crimes to solidify that loyalty, while Damon's corrupt cop must send officers into increasingly dangerous situations to keep the spotlight off his activites.

Bulger's case reminds us that informants choose to snitch for their own purposes, not always for the good of law and order. That's why, as long as police rely on criminal informants, the web of corruption and deceit they weave will continue to haunt our consciences - and make for pretty good drama.

Perhaps the next Whitey Bulger-inspired movie will end with a scene of the supersnitch sipping a Guiness on a Caribbean beach with all his money piled around him. That's a less morally satisfying ending, but in this case probably closer to reality.


Anonymous said...

The movie would have been more realistic if there were several cops inside the mob -- working for both sides.

Anonymous said...

I worked in Massachusetts and I've reported about Bulger and the FBI on this blog. I really believe Bulgers been killed but for background purposes the FBI Agent who controlled Bulger was John Conley. His brother, Jim, worked as a DEA Agent in Boston, and John Conley would still be a hero today if he hadn't written a letter.

I plan to see the movie but there's an old saying that "What goes around, comes around".

Today's headlines report: "Ex-informant held by U.S. says drug corruption is rampant"

John Conley wasn't exposed by any FBI supervisors or Agents who he worked with on a daily basis. That sounds counterintuitive but inside these Agencies, the Agents with the most power are the ones who get awards and produce numbers, even at the expense of intergrity. They're feared by their counterparts not respected and no one with any sense is going to report them.

Conley was exposed by a Federal Judge named Mark Wolf. Conley wrote an anonymous letter to Wolf trying to manipulate the system. Wolf found out it was Conley who wrote it and it started to unravel from there.

Let's hope today's headlines has the same effect as Conley's letter.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Are you saying Bulger's handlers murdered him, or those he snitched on?

Thanks for the link. I'm sure you've seen I blogged it. Best,

Anonymous said...

I believe he's dead because of his age, his health, and the fact that there have been more sightings of ELVIS than Bulger.

I'll keep this short but a federal law enforcement agency (FBI, DEA, etc)that gets the warrant keeps responsibility for it. Unless they give up that responsibility in writing and then it's given to the U.S. Marshals.

The apprehension responsbility of Bulger is exclusively the FBI, the very agency that has the most to lose if he's caught.

I've chased down fugitives even overseas and there's always a trail, some sightings, and plenty of other bounty hunters helping the cause.

Whitey Bulger caused a major scandal at a premier law enforcement agency like the FBI. Think how much bigger it would be if he's caught.

Bulger gained more knowlege from the FBI than they gained from him.