Film review: The Informant!
Reviewed by Michael Atkinson
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.
US, mid-90s. The true story of Mark Whitacre, a young executive at massive worldwide food-processing corporation Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). Whitacre's apparent equilibrium is put under pressure when he is told by his boss to find out why batches of lysine are going bad in the Illinois plant. Whitacre suggests industrial sabotage, a charge that forces the company to bring in the FBI. Forced into a corner (Whitacre may have been ruining the lysine batches himself, for reasons unknown), Whitacre tells the FBI agents that the sabotage story was a ruse, and the real crime is ADM's extended policy of worldwide lysine price-fixing. Whitacre then wilfully goes undercover for the Bureau, wearing a wire, setting up recorded meetings and so on, for years, just like his heroes in Tom Cruise movies and pulp novels. He intends to fight crime but doesn't see that he's bringing his own company down and himself with it. He can't stop lying, and it eventually becomes clear that he is disturbed and delusional, and is singlehandedly bringing about the largest conviction for price-fixing in US history. It also becomes clear to the company's lawyers that Whitacre has himself been embezzling money, shuttling millions from the company and its clients into his own accounts and into dummy companies. Whitacre's wife Ginger believes in her husband, but the feds finally realise that they're dealing with a bipolar megalomaniac who's living a fantasy narrative in his head. Whitacre is arrested and imprisoned, and eventually finds peace on anti-psychotic medication.
On one hand an almost formulaic thriller-farce about an extraordinary true-crime corporate corruption case that stands as one of the largest of its type in legal history, Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! is, on the other, a self-annihilating comedy-character study that dares to reflect its hero's disconnected, narcissistic, pop-cult worldview. The only comedy within memory that's consistently enthralling without actually being very funny, The Informant! is all about that exclamation point - the film ratchets up corporate hot dog Mark Whitacre's low-key adventures as a self-made corporate spy with jazzy spy-movie music (almost Austin Powers-ish at times) and simple visual tropes (washed-out establishing shots, glammed-up airports etc) left over from the era of Matt Helm movies. But at the same time, Whitacre's escapades are dull as dishwater in their particulars, and just as Whitacre doesn't seem to notice the divide between his John Grisham ideas of what's going on and what's really going on, the film itself is deliberately affectless (somewhat like Soderbergh's Che), rarely going for laughs or drama but instead maintaining a mask of uninflected objectivity throughout, as if it were covering up a web of lies as well.
It's not; Kurt Eichenwald, author of the book on which the film is based, has attested to its complete veracity when it comes to Whitacre's weirdly guileless guile. But who's to say we should believe anything, just because we're told? It doesn't help that the film itself doesn't make it clear to us when Whitacre is lying, or what stray fragments of truth poke out of his stories. (We're deep in before anything he says is substantiated or unsubstantiated by narrative action, and even deeper before we realise that Matt Damon's hair is in fact a toupee.) He seems to mean all of it, and no one, much less the audience, is the wiser. We're in the same position as the FBI agents shepherding his case; as the senior man on the job, TV actor Scott Bakula is the most sympathetic personage in the film, his crinkled visage sagging in bewilderment and frustration at each of Whitacre's uncovered prevarications. On the whole the resulting experience is as odd and beguiling as Soderbergh's last few non-Ocean's movies, in which it seems the film-maker is experimenting with audience anticipation and reaction to genre films (period mystery, biopic, working-girl indie, whistleblower thriller) that are either self-consciously confrontational or drained of juice. Soderbergh may be trying to avoid the mainstream manipulativeness at which he's proven so effective otherwise, or perhaps he's making too many films too quickly - in any case, The Informant! has a deadpan, play-it-as-it-lays personality all its own, and one suspects that it will gain comedic resonance by the fistful with subsequent viewings.
Of course the one person responsible for carrying the burden of Mark Whitacre's contradictions is Matt Damon, whose plumped-up, lazy-grinning, devilishly congenial portrait is both perfectly convincing and unforgettable, a high-wire act (not unlike Whitacre's) of masquerading as a masquerader and never letting the guise slip, even as Whitacre begins to implode once his ingenious machinations start to grind him up. Damon's been mostly ignored by the Academy so far as an actor, but the only way this performance will evade official industry attention this year is if the Academy members walk away not exactly sure who was lying when and how much, and if Soderbergh's distancing attitude doesn't force some of them to wonder what it was they just witnessed.
Degraded dupes: Amy Taubin on Soderbergh's The Good German (March 2007)
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My bloody valentine: Nick James talks to Anthony Minghella and Walter Murch about The Talented Mr. Ripley and sympathetic outsiders (February 2000)
The Limey reviewed by Philip Strick (January 2000)
The flashback kid: Steven Soderbergh interviewed by Sheila Johnstone (November 1999)
- Directed by
- Steven Soderbergh
- Produced by
- Michael Jaffe
- Howard Braunstein
- Kurt Eichenwald
- Gregory Jacobs
- Jennifer Fox
- Scott Z. Burns
- Based on the book by
- Kurt Eichenwald
- Director of Photography
- Peter Andrews [i.e. Steven Soderbergh]
- Edited by
- Stephen Mirrione
- Production Design
- Doug Meerdink
- Marvin Hamlisch