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Mixed feelings as Hub heroes explore movie on its villain

Bulger’s portrayal may be challenge for Damon, Affleck

(Evan Agostini/Associated Press)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / October 28, 2011

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Ben Affleck and Matt Damon grew up in Cambridge and have contributed their talents to a string of successful movies set in the Boston area, among them “Good Will Hunting,’’ “The Departed,’’ and “The Town.’’ Collectively these films have established Boston in the minds of moviegoers around the globe.

But their latest venture, a proposed movie about Boston mobster James “Whitey’’ Bulger, is already stirring mixed emotions among local people who have known Bulger and who fear it might glamorize a ruthless criminal.

“If anyone makes this movie, I’m pleased it’s these two. They’re brilliant,’’ said Tommy Donahue, whose father was allegedly killed by Bulger and his henchmen. “But I definitely have mixed emotions about this. Hopefully they can depict Whitey Bulger for what he is. They’ll need to do their homework, though.’’

How Bulger might be portrayed onscreen - Damon has indicated he wants the role - concerns attorney Anthony Cardinale as well. Bulger has been charged with 19 slayings, many shockingly brutal.

“If it’s done honestly, [Damon] will look like an idiot, a treacherous piece of junk. It’ll be a bad career move for him,’’ said Cardinale, who represented Francis “Cadillac Frank’’ Salemme, then the New England Mafia boss, in a case that helped expose Bulger’s corrupt ties with the FBI.

If not done accurately, Cardinale added, “it’s a worse career move.’’

Bulger’s arrest in June and pending trial may yield even more details of gruesome killings and FBI corruption, heightening interest in any dramatization of the mobster’s life and crimes. But along with the interest come questions about how key pieces of the story might be treated or left out.

On the one hand, there is widespread praise for Affleck and Damon as homegrown stars who have never abandoned their roots.

“As a Bostonian, I’m proud of them,’’ said defense attorney Joseph Oteri, a longtime Bulger family friend.

His primary concern is whether their film does “a hatchet job’’ on William Bulger, the former Massachusetts Senate president who is the gangster’s brother, and not how it treats Whitey. “Southie is a state of mind, not a place,’’ Oteri said, and Affleck and Damon “know how to capture that mentality.’’

On the other hand, there is worry that a big-budget production built around Damon and Affleck might romanticize Bulger and his gang, or even turn Bulger himself into a sympathetic figure, no matter how dark the film is.

According to Thomas Foley, the former Massachusetts State Police colonel who helped build the criminal case against Bulger, it is critically important that any such movie strives to be more than pure entertainment. It should also, he said, be faithful to what really happened - notably, Bulger’s role as an FBI informant, which began in the 1970s - without “making [Bulger] any more of a celebrity than he is now.’’

That is a tall order, conceded Foley, who is working on his own book about the Bulger case. “What angle will they take? I don’t know, but this happened over many years. It’s hard to get your arms around all that in a two-hour movie.’’

Michael Patrick MacDonald, who grew up in South Boston and wrote the best-selling memoir “All Souls,’’ is similarly concerned about what angles are taken and themes explored in the movie, which was announced this week but does not yet have a script.

MacDonald wonders whether any Hollywood film about Bulger can succeed as both popular entertainment and honest portrayal of deeper issues such as poverty and class division in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood like South Boston.

“I feel like the industry we’ve already seen spring up, all the books and movies, is true-crime porn, poverty porn,’’ MacDonald said. “And that’s what I fear here, that it will be titillating without dealing with the larger social implications.’’

Bulger’s charisma is undeniable, he adds. “But where do you go with that? Having a glamorous star like Damon play someone who’s responsible for destroying a lot of families - I don’t know about that.’’

For many who have already written about Bulger and his crimes, the project raises other concerns. Several Bulger-related books have been optioned for the big screen, and their fate is now unclear. Damon said this week he hoped “everyone will back off’’ and let him and Affleck have first crack at a Whitey movie. (Representatives of Damon and Affleck did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment.)

“The message they’re sending is, ‘We’re here. You disappear,’ ’’ said Phyllis Karas, coauthor, with Kevin Weeks, a former Bulger cohort, of “Brutal: The Untold Story of My Life Inside Whitey Bulger’s Irish Mob.’’ “But why do they think they own the story? I’m disappointed. But it remains to be seen whether [other film projects] are dead in the water.’’

Weeks and Karas were in Marblehead this week, discussing their book at the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore. They, too, have been hopeful that a script based on their book will go into production.

In answer to several questions about what Bulger is really like, Weeks painted a more sympathetic picture than many have of the 82-year-old mobster, calling him “extremely intelligent’’ and soft-spoken.

Asked what he thinks about an Affleck-Damon film, Weeks said that it is clear the two are trying to scare off other projects. “I don’t think [Damon] can pull it off, though,’’ Weeks said in a brief post-talk interview. “If he wants to portray a fictional Jimmy Bulger, maybe. But I think an actor like Ed Harris could pull it off better.’’

For Dick Lehr, coauthor (with Gerard O’Neill) of “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob,’’ any Bulger movie focusing on FBI corruption is potentially “a good thing, a public service.’’ But what Affleck and Damon do with the story remains to be seen, he said.

Ironically, Lehr notes, “Black Mass,’’ currently in the hands of Hollywood producer Brian Oliver, was optioned in 2000 by Miramax studios - specifically with Affleck and Damon in mind. No film was put in production, however, and rights to the book were eventually resold. Yesterday, Oliver said he intends to move forward with his version of the Bulger saga and hopes to start filming early next year. The movie has not been cast.

Robert Fitzpatrick, a former FBI Boston officer supervisor, said he, too, is concerned about the movie Affleck and Damon might make, although less about its portrayal of Bulger than it how treats the FBI. John Connolly, a former Boston FBI agent, is serving a 10-year prison sentence for his role in enabling Bulger’s criminal activities.

“The worst thing would be to slam-dunk the bureau and Connolly,’’ said Fitzpatrick, whose own book about the Bulger case comes out in January. “All sorts of people were involved here. The Bulger affair was as complicated an affair as I’ve ever seen in the bureau.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.