A film review by Craig J. Koban September 27, 2009

Rank:  #23


2009, R, 108 mins.

Mark Whitacre: Matt Damon / Brian Shepard: Scott Bakula / Robert Herndon: Joel McHale / Ed Herbst: Patton Oswalt / Ginger Whitacre: Melanie Lynskey / Kirk: Eddie Jemison

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Steven Soderbergh / Written by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald

In terms of corporate whistle blowers, no one was…how shall I say it…dumber and more untrustworthy than Mark Whitacre. 

Just how dumb and untrustworthy, you may ask?  

Well, let’s just say that the real Whitacre – who serves as the basis for director Steven Soderbergh’s wildly entertaining and whimsical dramady, THE INFORMANT! – was a rising star at Illinois-based Archer Daniels and Midland (or AMD) during the early to mid-1990’s when he looked poised to becoming a major financial player with the company.  However, when he became uneasy with his employer’s rampant price fixing tactics around the world, he decided that enough was enough and began to secretly report the company’s illegal economic activities to the FBI…that is under the strict insistence of his wife.  The price fixing cost consumers billions of dollars, yet it was Whitacre himself that  – through both direct and indirect actions – led to him receiving a prison sentence that was three times higher than any of his higher ups at work.   

Perhaps this had a considerable amount to do with the fact that – as a witness and an informant – he was notoriously unreliable.  Maybe it had something to do with the fact that he was borderline bipolar.  I think that it had a lot to do with the $9 million – or was it $11 million? – that he secretly embezzled along the way while assisting the FBI. 

The notion that Whitacre actually believed – in his heart of hearts – that he would actually still have “a place” with AMD after the FBI had their way with the company, not to mention after stealing millions from them, only shows that he had to be one of the most hopelessly naïve and deranged whistle blowers of all-time.  At its height, AMD was one of the 50 largest corporations in the world, but at their core they were dirty.  By Whitacre’s own startling and frank admission to the Feds, AMD bosses – often in cahoots with Whitacre himself – would often meet with their competitors to fix the price of lysine, a food additive that is in a remarkable number of various foods found at your local grocery store.  Widely regarded as one of the largest and most high ranking corporate whistle blowers in American history, Whitacre aided the government by clandestinely taping conversations that his company had with various marketers in Tokyo, Paris, Mexico, and Hong Kong.  Unfortunately for Whitacre, the pressure of being a covert spy within his own company was overwhelming, so overwhelming that he defrauded the very company that he was secretly trying to reveal as frauds.   

How did he do all of this?  Lying, more lying, and more lying – accompanied by delusions of prosecution, faking letters from his psychiatrist, fraudulently laying assault charges on one of his FBI handlers, and – in many incredulous cases – talking to people that he had absolutely no business talking to in regards to his covert lifestyle for three years.  This was a man motivated by greed, compulsion, sheer stupidity, and an inordinate lack of pure common sense. 

THE INFORMANT! reminded my considerably of another Soderbergh biopic about massive corporate malfeasance, his Oscar nominated ERIN BROKOVICH, but this time the story of widespread fraud and the crooks behind it is played for significantly more light-hearted giggles.  The tone of BROCKOVICH was more solemn, but this time Soderbergh’s film  – written by THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM co-author Scott Z Burns, based on the 2000 non-fiction book THE INFORMANT! by New York Times journalist Kurt Eichenwald – has a more mischievous level of spirited frivolity to the story of white-collar crime.  However, this is not to say that the film is unremittingly farcical; the more somber heart of the film is the creepily effective, Oscar-nomination worthy performance by a barely unrecognizable Matt Damon as the two-faced Whitacre.  

What’s so endlessly compelling about THE INFORMANT! is that Damon does a bravura job of immersing himself in this buffoon-like creation that could have been a broad and unfunny caricature in a lesser actor’s hands; with him on board he crafts a tragicomic portrayal of a man that is sometimes innocuously clueless and jovial, but also one that slowly descends down to a self-aggrandizing liar that becomes more depressingly dishonest with himself.  It takes a really skilled and nimble actor to pull off such a tricky character that is simultaneously a very uproarious and a deeply crazy figure, and Damon is certainly up to the task.  Bespectacled, overweight (he gorged himself to add on 30 pounds of flab to his killer Jason Bourne physique), with a laughable, heavily hair sprayed down coif and greasy moustache, Damon creates a fully realized persona of unflattering delusion and dishonesty.  

That, and he’s as funny as hell. 

Partially narrated by Whitacre himself, the film traverse between the early 1990’s and the early 2000’s, revealing the unbelievably true story that began with his whistle-blowing antics and culminating with his prison term.  We see Whitacre initially at relative ease with his job at AMD as a biochemist working in an executive position; he soon becomes concerned  when he learns of immense price fixing within the company and decides to work in tandem with two FBI agents, Brian Shepherd (Scott Bakula, ultra cool and effectively low-key) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale).  The film then showcases Whitacre’s three-year ordeal of capturing 200 conversations on audio and video tape, which the Feds hope will be enough to use as evidence to prosecute AMD.  The real conundrum of the film is…well…why in the hell would Whitacre want to frame the company that has provided him with his livelihood for years as well as a company that he willfully participated in when it came to price fixing?  Initially, THE INFORMANT! shows him as a person whose quilt is overriding all other impulses – he simply wished to clear his name and conscience and to make his well meaning wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey, quietly funny here) think well of him.   

However, the film deliciously becomes more of an elaborate bit of character assassination of Whitacre himself, which is slowly and patiently revealed.  Part of the sheer pleasure of THE INFORMANT! is seeing how Soderbergh allows the story to casually observe Whitacre as a man fraught with incongruities: we initially see him as a semi-innocent – albeit bumbling and oftentimes oafish – simpleton that appears to be doing the morally correct thing, but as the film’s mysteries begin to unravel the more we begin to see Whitacre as a fervent charlatan and self-delusional hustler that was arguably as much of a criminal as the bosses he was trying to entrap with the Feds.  Yes, all of the phone taps, wires, and tapes that Whitacre participated in helped to build a case for the government to eventually prosecute three key officials from AMD to guilty verdicts on top of having fines levied against the company exceeding $500 million.  Yet, largely because of his own dreadfully bizarre behavior, lamentably feeble minded choices, and own insatiable gluttony, Whitacre became an unwanted fall guy that got all of the negative attention.  His deplorable actions and subsequent prison term caught more of the spotlight that his own company. 

You just know that a screw is seriously loose with this guy when you listen to all of his nonsensical monologues in the film, which reveal all of his deeply internalized and eerily distracted observations of his encounters.  Throughout the film, as Whitacre offers up all of his loony insights and annotations that shockingly have absolutely little to do with the on-screen moments in the film, it is clear that this stylistic choice is crucial to show the character’s total disassociation with what is actually happening around him.  His innocent and illogical ramblings often result in the film’s best side-splitting laughs, but they also tap into the tragedy within the comedy: this is man that thinks he’s a cunning and wily secret agent, but he’s so blind to his stunning ineptitude and to the reality of his situation that he almost becomes an ungainly laughing stock more akin to Frank Drebin.   At one point he tells someone that he likes to think of himself as 0014.  Why 0014?  Because he thinks he’s twice as smart as 007.  I don’t know whether to laugh at this doofus or feel sorry for him 

Granted, I think that is precisely the tone that Soderbergh is going for here: he is a smart, stylish, and astute filmmaker, and all of these traits are on ample display here in THE INFORMANT!.  He finds a period sensibility and vibe to the film that confidently navigates between capricious, tongue in cheek farce and a serious examination of a flawed criminal mind that allows his mental instability ad rampant deceitfulness to get the better of him.  Thankfully, Soderbergh is wise enough to neither make the film too serious nor too outlandish, which is a thorny middle ground for any accomplished director.  Making his film lively, colorful, and breezy (which is greatly accentuated by the retro-smooth and groovy toe taping score by Marvin Hamlisch that delightfully hints at the free wheeling scores of yesteryear) Soderbergh’s resulting film feels both invitingly kitschy and hip without feeling overbearingly so; he finds a pitch perfect balance at methodically stays with it throughout. 

As respectable and accredited as Soderbergh is as a filmmaker, THE INFORMANT! is Damon’s film through and through, and his performance as a monstrously nerdy and gawky corporate stool pigeon that conspired against everyone around him – including himself – finds just the right comic inflection and serious tenor.  However, great comedy needs a straight man for reactions, and I think many will most likely overlook the strong supporting work of Scott Bakula as Whitacre's increasingly frustrated and insecure FBI handler, who has to progress through the film dealing with Whitacre's endless pool of lies and falsehoods (oftentimes, it’s more hilarious to see Bakula’s responses to Damon’s devastatingly peculiar behaviour and actions than anything else).  Ultimately, THE INFORMANT! just may be one of the funniest serious films to come out in awhile: the criminal actions of the perpetrators were serious and had calamitous repercussions, but to watch a pot-bellied and mustachioed geek who thinks he has a heart of gold descend into a moral abyss…. that’s is unreservedly a hoot. 

  H O M E