Informant, The (2009): Soderbergh’s Comedy, Starring Matt Damon in Top Form

Socially relevant, The Informant! Soderbergh’s darkly humorous comedy about corporate greed, multinational price fixing, wiretapping, embezzlement, FBI investigations and high-level whistleblowers, finds him in top mainstream and entertaining form, after making the audacious but flawed epic “Che” and the low-budget experimental indie, “The Girlfriend Experience.”
“The Informant” world-premiered at the Venice Film Fest (out of competition) and plays at Toronto Film Fest (in Special Presentations series) before getting released theatrically by Warner on September 18, 2009.
The film’s motto can be summed up: “Everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime by the time they finish breakfast.” Set between 1992 and 1996, and structured as a journey, “The Informant” follows the strange, unpredictable path of Mark Whitacre from corporate golden boy all the way to FBI informant.  
Anchored by a splendid performance from Matt Damon in the lead, “The Informant” adds an original panel to a growing body of American films, dramas, melodramas, thrillers, and now comedies, about the unique aspects of the American corporate world, and by extension, American capitalism.
Soderbergh himself has dealt with this milieu and similar issues in the 2000 Oscar-winner “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts.  It would be interesting to place his latest work in the context of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” (a sequel is in the works), Steve Zaillian’s “A Civil Action,” and Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” to mention a few good films of this uniquely American sub-genre.
Sporting a mustache and glasses and carrying an extra weight of 30 pounds, Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a rising star at agri-industry giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), who moves up the ranks and establishes a degree of success before suddenly turning into a whistleblower.
“The Informant” would have been relevant and engrossing even if it were not inspired by an actual case, and the fact that it is just adds another dimension of topicality to the picture. Based on the story of the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history, “The Informant” was scripted by Scott Z. Burns, drawing on Kurt Eichenwald’s well-respected book, “The Informant (A True Story).”
When the saga begins, Whitacre, a biochemist and astute businessman, is on the fast track at agricultural conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a greedy, expansive company with many vested interests. His job puts him in a position to know and play a part in the inner workings of ADM, mostly above the board, but also in some activities that are behind closed doors and under the table.

The tale depicts in detail the process by which Whitcare exposes his company’s multi-national price-fixing conspiracy to the FBI, all along envisioning and deluding himself that he is a new type of celeb, a hero of the common man. When the FBI needs hard evidence (“show me the facts”), Whitacre agrees to wear a wire and carry a hidden tape recorder in his briefcase, imagining himself as a new version of 007, a top secret agent.

Unfortunately for the FBI, their lead witness hasn’t been so forthcoming about helping himself to the corporate coffers. In time, Whitacre’s ever-changing account frustrates the agents (played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) and threatens the very case against ADM, as it becomes almost impossible to decipher what is real and what is the product of Whitacre’s fertile and perverse imagination.

Taking an ironic-comedic approach to the material, Soderbergh proves to be the right director, walking a fine line between a dark satire and an outrageous farce. Indeed, the plot, with its frequent twists and turns, is so convoluted that it often comes across as simply and utterly ridiculous. Author Kurt Eichenwald serves as a producer on the movie, so it’s fair to assume that he approved of the director’s strategy, tonal mode, and other (minor) changes from the printed version. Thus, the use of voiceover adds another resonant (and intermittently funny) layer to the already intriguing proceedings, with Whitacre’s inner monologues serving as sort of guidance on what happened beneath the surface. 

It’s to the filmmakers’ credit that they offer hypotheses but do not spell out definitive explanations or clear-cut psychological (and other) motivations for Whitacre’s bizarre, eccentric, and deviant behavior. We are led to believe that his conduct and feelings might have been a product of a conscience crisis, but they also could have been a result of something else, unbeknownst even to him.
Nonetheless, what matters is that Whitacre suddenly turns whistleblower, exposing to the FBI a multi-national price-fixing scheme regarding the price of a new food additive called lysine. As we hear him say, “It’s all very scientific, but if you’re a stockholder, all that matters is that corn goes in one end and profit comes out the other.”

The absurdity of the situations is conveyed through a subjective, unreliable narrator, who is unable to distinguishing facts from fiction and myth from truth. Whitacre’s narration is not only unreliable, it’s also not always directly related to the action on screen. His voiceover takes the form of a wandering mind, a stream of consciousness of digressive thinking, in which his mind is suddenly triggered by arbitrary objects, such as ties, polar bears, or frequent miles programs.

Along with Soderbergh’s smart and astute direction, the film benefits from (actually rests entirely on the shoulders of) Damon’s natural charisma. A versatile actor, at home in every genre, he renders an effortlessly likable yet hard-to-believe performance. Damon is so well cast that it’s hard to imagine “The Informant” without him.

Mark Whitacre – Matt Damon
FBI Special Agent Brian ShepardScott Bakula
FBI Special Agent Bob Herndon – Joel McHale
Ginger Whitacre – Melanie Lynskey
Terry Wilson – Rick Overton
Mick Andreas – Tom Papa
Mark Cheviron – Tom Wilson
Aubrey Daniel – Clancy Brown
James Epstein – Tony Hale
Robin Mann – Ann Cusack
FBI Special Agent Dean Paisley – Allan Havey
Liz Taylor – Rusty Schwimmer
A Warner release presented in association with Participant Media and Groundswell Prods. of a Section Eight-Jaffe/Braunstein Enterprise production.
Produced by Michael Jaffe, Howard Braunstein, Kurt Eichenwald, Gregory Jacobs, Jennifer Fox. Executive producers, George Clooney, Jeff Skoll, Michael London.
Co-producer, Michael Polaire.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Screenplay, Scott Z. Burns, based on the book “The Informant (A True Story)” by Kurt Eichenwald
Camera, Peter Andrews.
Music, Marvin Hamlisch.
Production designer, Doug Meerdink.
Art directors, David E. Scott, William Hunter; set designers, Dawn Brown Manser, Jane Wuu; set decorator, Dan Clancy.
Costume designer, Shoshana Rubin.
Sound, Dennis Towns; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Larry Blake.

Assistant director, Gregory Jacobs.


Casting, Carmen Cuba.
MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 108 Minutes.