Directed by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, from the book by Kurt Eichenwald
In 1995, biochemical engineer Mark Whitacre, then the President of Archer Daniels Midland’s BioProducts Division, went public with his role as an informant for FBI in their investigation of international price fixing. “Had it not been for the fraud conviction, he would have been a national hero,” maintains one of the FBI agents who worked with Whitacre. Yes, it turns out the key witness in the biggest antitrust case the FBI had taken bribes and embezzled a few million from AMD.
Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, based on the non-fiction book by Kurt Eichenwald, is indeed grounded on true events, but if the exclamation mark at the end of the title doesn’t clue you in, then the credits (in type that could have come from an early seventies pop music album cover) and the groovy Marvin Hamlish score (which sounds lifted from a lighthearted late sixties spy movie) should convince you that this corporate whistleblower is not The Insider. The scope of the fraud is enormous but the disconnect between the scale of the crime and the jaunty tone and bouncy style of the film helps us shift focus to the bizarre true human story beneath the Erin Brockovich tale of social justice and the corporate culture of corruption.
Matt Damon is a constant churn of gee-whiz earnestness, righteous indignation, nervous exasperation and self-aggrandizing swagger as Whitacre, a wannabe hero with a lovingly loyal wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey as the epitome of sixties sitcom housewife and mother), a magnificent house and a blazingly successful career that could all be put at risk by his cooperation with the Feds. It’s a brilliant dance of charm and delusion delivered with an amiable enthusiasm and wavering resolve and accompanied by a running stream-of-consciousness narration of constant distraction, pinging all over the place as he struggles to keep his secrets and play undercover agent 0014 (“Because I’m twice as smart as 007,” he crows to a neighbor – the first of many to hear about his covert work).
As Soderbergh reveals the chinks in his armor of altruism and service we come to realize he’s a compulsive liar. But what makes him so slippery and fascinating is how effortless and consistent he is. You can’t sort out the lies from the truth. They create a fantasy world of heroism and entitlement that Whitacre surely wants to believe and absolutely wants the rest of the world to understand on his terms.
His FBI handlers (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale), for all their well-intentioned fumbling, buy into his self-inflated show of courage. They’re protective of him, like he’s a child prodigy with an out-of-control imagination in the adult world, and are gobsmacked with every fresh confession (made with the immunity he secured under his deal for cooperation). That unconditional affection for their erratic insider is all that props up their determination to see the case through even as every new confession hammers one more dispiriting nail in the coffin of his credibility. Yet for all the professional shortcomings and shortsightedness, Soderbergh has a qualified but authentic respect for this loyalty, as he does for Whitacre’s perseverance against all odds and logic and Ginger’s unfailing allegiance, even while he lampoons their loyalty in the cascade of confessions and revelations of Whitacre’s own crimes. That she chooses to embrace his ideals rather than his shortcomings may be her delusion, but in this film it may be all that keeps Whitacre centered… as much as he can be. He’s got a justification for every misdeed, then an excuse, and finally… well, he can’t believe the injustice of all and we can hardly believe the scope of his schizophrenic antics.
The Informant! isn’t about institutional corruption or underdog courage. It’s about one man’s overexcited imagination and delusions of living a real-life John Grisham novel cracking under the pressure of multiple conspiracies and an untreated bi-polar disorder. Plenty of explanations and excuses and mitigating circumstances are offered for his behavior. Soderbergh duly offers them to us but for his part doesn’t psychoanalyze or justify, he just sits back to watch the riveting spectacle.
Yet behind this amazing human house of cards he also offer a chagrined perspective on the skewed scales of justice. Sure, it’s funny to hear Whitacre get all self-righteous about the inequities of crime and punishment, but when you step away from his self-interested position, you realize he’s on to something. It’s a lot easier to prosecute one guy for stealing from a few people. It’s a lot harder to get the corporate masterminds behind international fraud totaling billions. Whitacre’s mistake, apparently, was thinking too small.