By Don Simpson | September 18, 2009
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer(s): Scott Z. Burns (screenplay), Kurt Eichenwald (book)
Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Melanie Lynskey
During the mid-1990s there was an organized scheme, you might even want to say international conspiracy, involving several agricultural companies (including Archer Daniels Midland – also known as ADM – from Decatur, Illinois) to raise the price of lysine, the animal feed additive. The scheme was quite successful – resulting in a 70% increase in lysine prices just within the first nine months of the coercion.
The FBI learned of the lysine price-fixing conspiracy from Mark Whitacre, a highly degreed Ivy League bio-tech researcher turned Corporate Vice President of ADM. Whitacre agreed to work as an informant (!) for the FBI (becoming the highest ranking executive to turn whistleblower), effectively collecting hundreds of hours of video and audio tapes that documented agriculture executives from around the world fixing the prices of food additives.
But let’s first take a couple steps back…because you’re probably wondering how Whitacre wound up sleuthing for the FBI, huh? Well, back in 1992, Whitacre informed his superiors that a Japanese counterpart had information concerning a mole at ADM –and the mole was contaminating ADM’s experiments. Of course Whitacre’s Japanese contact expected quite a hefty ransom to give up the mole’s identity, so ADM brought the situation to the attention of the FBI. Whitacre, caught in a lie that he just couldn’t escape, opted to distract the FBI with the juicy carrot of ADM’s involvement in the international price-fixing of food additives. Whitacre then went on to work as an informant (!) for the FBI for over three years. That takes us back to paragraph two – which, in case you forgot, you have already read – so you may now proceed to the next paragraph. Thank you.
New York Times journalist Kurt Eichenwald authored a non-fiction book of Whitacre’s trials and tribulations titled The Informant. Steven Soderbergh added an “!” to the name, enlisted Matt Damon to play Whitacre alongside an otherwise nameless cast (well, besides Scott Bakula as FBI agent Brian Shepard) – and, alas, now we have a film!
We first meet Whitacre (played with brilliant comedic affect by a doughy Damon) rambling on and on about high fructose corn syrup – a sweetener (and arguably the cause for Whitacre’s doughtiness – but that’s another subject to discuss at another time) produced by ADM. Something we learn very early on about Whitacre is that he has a tendency to ramble on and on, both outwardly and inwardly (the inner monologues are by far the funniest parts of the film, along with the music cues). And talking is what gets Whitacre into trouble, because some (most?) of what Whitacre says isn’t really 100% truthful. The guy just seems to enjoy the sound of his own voice, and has no filter to stop bad information from spewing forth out of his mouth. At times, we should even question whether or not his inner monologues are true…
Despite all the jibber-jabber, Whitacre is a perfectly likable fellow and it’s very difficult not to feel sorry for him (Soderbergh pretty much follows Eichenwald’s lead in casting Whitacre in a mostly favorable scapegoat-ish light – Whitacre’s wrongs pale in comparison to the corporate corruption around him). It’s also very difficult not to laugh at him…until you realize that Whitacre suffers from bipolar disorder, then you go back to feeling sorry for the poor guy again. Whitacre is also the perfect example of the Peter Principle – he is a brilliant researcher, but not a brilliant executive. His promotion to the executive offices of ADM was truly his greatest downfall.
Soderbergh’s The Informant! is probably his most cohesive film since Traffic, balancing all of his greatest directorial strengths: spot-on cinematography; soundtracks with purpose and meaning; quirky, yet sometimes uncomfortably dark, humor; incredibly strong and unrestrained acting performances; highly imaginative costume and set design; and bitterly relevant political and social commentary (sometimes via metaphor, other times more directly). This being Damon’s virginal no-holds-barred foray into the realm of comedy (and a dark comedy at that), I think he has a new career path ahead of him – let’s hope for more Whitacre’s and less Bourne’s in his future.