Mark Reviews Movies

THE INFORMANT!

3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey 

MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 9/18/09


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Surely, this didn't happen. It couldn't have happened. Yet, it did, as documented by investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald's book and now dramatized in Steven Soderbergh's thoroughly entertaining tale of a man so confounded by the search for the truth and the lies that make it up that the line between fact and fiction is muddled beyond recognizability.

Truth can be and most of the time is stranger than fiction, as is the case of The Informant!, in which the truth is even stranger because of the fictions within the truth.

The film tells the story of Mark Whitacre, a high-ranking executive at the agribusiness Archer Daniel Midland (If you use something with corn syrup, ADM is probably involved), who turns whistleblower for the FBI. He was the highest-level executive in the United States to do so.

These depictions of nonfiction corporate malfeasance are typically deadly serious, and while that tone is certainly appropriate for such material, Soderbergh heads in the other direction.

There are no courtroom scenes here—no big speeches. This is an insider's view, with people doing their jobs and cheating their consumers out of hundreds of millions of dollars in hotel conference rooms, on the golf course, and over a cup of coffee in indifferent tones that suggest they might as well be small-talking about their latest golf game or how their family is doing. After all, the consumer, one executive says, is the enemy.

Soderbergh's look at Whitacre's actions and the international corporate conspiracy during the mid-1990s to fix prices on lysine, an essential animal feed additive (Don't worry too much about the science or business of this amino acid; as portrayed here, it's just a MacGuffin), is light, almost playful. Even the film's score is a brassy, jazzy throwback.

It just feels appropriate now. The events here are nothing compared to our current climate of corporate bailouts followed by huge company parties on the taxpayers' dime.

We don't care too much about these kinds of crimes anymore. They are so common and so blatant, the worldwide price-fixing scheme in The Informant! seems almost quaint by comparison.

That approach and tone also give the film a distinct sense of intimacy, which is vital because the corporate plot is ultimately background (intriguing, involving, and infuriating background) for a character study.

This is, after all, the story of the ADM's lysine price-fixing conspiracy as seen through the eyes of Whitacre, played by Matt Damon in a pitch-perfect performance full of ego turmoil and constant second-guessing. He's a quiet guy, caught up in the criminality going on around him, wanting to do the right thing and pushed to do so by his wife (Melanie Lynskey). He finds the right opportunity when the company calls in the FBI on an unrelated matter, bringing in Special Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and later Bob Herndon (Joel McHale).

Whitacre is also an egomaniac with a grudge against his employers, constantly stating that the company's policy is "Dump on Mark Whitacre." His reasons for turning whistleblower are entirely selfish and naïve. He's certain that once all his bosses are in jail for their misconduct, he will be the only executive left to left to pick up the pieces and finally become president.

We have every reason to doubt Whitacre's motivation from the start, and the success of Scott Z. Burns's screenplay lies in the way we subtly begin to mistrust everything Whitacre says and does. It's a methodical buildup. Whitacre is at first uncertain about telling Shepard the goings-on in the company, only to spill everything in their first meeting. Later, he lies about not being able to meet with the agents in charge of the investigation.

These small lies gradually turn into larger ones, which become outlandish ones, which become even bigger than that. Thankfully, Whitacre isn't the type of person to keep information to himself forever.

All the while, Whitacre helps the FBI set up a case against ADM by installing a recorder in his briefcase, moving participants in the price-fixing meetings into good view of a hidden camera, and getting them to bluntly state that they have an agreement on their criminal actions. Unfortunately, Whitacre isn't the type of person to keep information to himself forever.

The level of transgressions and Whitacre's self-denial grow exponentially throughout the course of his participation in the investigation for almost three years and continue further down the line after the case against ADM has been settled.

It's in this later turn of events, when the Justice Department's focus shifts from ADM to Whitacre himself, that the film shifts from a criminal investigation to a decided character study. We also realize that it's been one all along, and there's a great moment in which Whitacre's inner monologue (used beforehand to convey his amusing, random thoughts) stumbles over what lie to try next.

Whitacre is most definitely guilty, and Burns and Soderbergh don't condone his deeds or vacantly sympathize with him. They and, in the end, we do struggle to understand him, especially when handed the evidence that there are so many others in this story guilty of much worse than he is.

The Informant! is an appropriately tricky film—in its tone and its precise revelatory structure—about a tricky person. We'd love to sympathize with Mark Whitacre if he weren't such a crook.

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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