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Steve Soderbergh contributes another thoughtful, entertaining movie with The Informant!, an industrial whistleblower comedy that, halfway through, turns its lampoon stick on the audience. Based entirely on a true, relatively recent price-fixing scandal, the tale of Mark Whitacre and ADM is like a window opened to the true nature of big business: even when the rampant theft and corruption are revealed and reported, nothing changes.
Taken from Kurt Eichenwald's nonfiction book, The Informant! gives us a character who at first seems a naïve paragon of good will. Archer Daniels Midland is a giant agri-business company, and its energetic VeePee Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is placed in charge of getting a lysine plant going. Faced by what looks like sabotage in the production line, Mark reports that a Japanese contact is extorting a high price for an 'antidote' to the problem. Mark's corporate peers demand that the FBI be called in. To our surprise, after initial meetings Mark reveals to the congenial FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) that the extortion plot is but the tip of the iceberg, that ADM is engaged in price-fixing with other large international corporations, and reaping hundreds of millions in illegal profits. Shepard and his superiors are impressed that Whitacre is willing to jeopardize his lucrative corporate career to expose the crime, and further amazed when the whistleblower actively records hundreds of meetings in an effort to get proof of criminal conspiracy on audio and videotapes. All seems on the up-and-up until Whitacre's behavior quirks begin to get out of hand. He's obsessed with his image as a secret agent, and continually surprises his FBI handlers with disturbing information that they should have been told before. Eventually his reliability comes into question.
I saw two movies last year that I thought were just as good or better than some of the ten films nominated for Oscars, Duplicity and The Informant! Both are about business ethics gone mad, yet stay within the realm of possibility. The Informant! is a depressingly true story. Unlike Michael Mann's sober The Insider, this look at the futility of whistle-blowing on the wrongdoings of increasingly powerful corporations gives us little hope that conditions can be changed. Large companies use their clout to elbow out competition, and when a few big players corner a market, they collude to rip off the public at large.
The Informant! starts as a lighthearted comedy, complete with a dippy anachronistic typeface for its main titles, as if it were a grown-up Disney family film. Marvin Hamlisch's distractingly kitschy score also seems a throwback to the early 1970s. We're highly entertained by Mark Whitacre's constant voiceovers, meandering trivia sidebars about whatever pops into his head. The man's ramblings are amusing and eventually infuriating. Even as Whitacre's credibility is going down in flames, he continues with his idiotic observations and bits of wisdom, all laced with self-serving lies. About halfway through his secret job as a special informant (which takes years), Mark begins admitting that "little" things he told his FBI handlers weren't entirely true. From that point on Whitacre becomes a veritable onion of unreliability, peeling off successive new layers of dishonesty bit by bit. The same hilarious (or excruciating) exchange crops up again and again: FBI Agent Shepard: "So is this it? Have you told us everything? Is there any more?" Whitacre: "That's it so help me God".
It would be unfair for me to divulge some of the major plot turns, although they're a matter of record if one wants to look up Mark Whitacre on the web. The Informant! remains funny but the jokes begin to hurt after a while, until we realize that the real joke has been on us, the general public. The essential advocacy documentary The Corporation is built on the thesis that corporations are psychotic constructions that lie, cheat and connive to make a profit; legality is just another business variable. Through Matt Damon's fairly amazing performance, Mark Whitacre embodies that ethic 100%. His bottomless capacity for casual mendacity makes him a sociopath of the highest order. When he constantly denies his wrongdoings and counter-accuses his accusers, he comes off as the New American, the rich jerk who will do and say anything to feed his enormous ego and keep the gravy train rolling. The way Whitacre's wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) goes into denial and supports her husband's wild schemes is hilarious, but also painful. After everything died down, ADM weathered the inconvenience of this episode and today is still a happy multi-billion dollar going concern. Mark Whitacre went through a rough spell but -- and is this a surprise? -- is now out of prison and again working as an executive in a position of responsibility. Why wonder that white collar crooks act as they do -- the system frequently gives them a free pass.
The joke is indeed on us, the public that gets all judgmental when criminal clods simply go out and rob a bank, like honest thieves.
The Informant! was promoted as a Ha-Ha comedy with references to Soderbergh's Ocean's 11 pictures. Those moneymakers with popular stars like George Clooney and Julia Roberts make possible the director's more arcane experiments. With Matt Damon headlining this new film is indeed more of a mainstream item, but content-wise it's not likely to win a huge following. Those viewers not able to keep up with the business details (and I admit I barely followed some of the story on the first viewing) probably rejected the movie because it's "insufficiently entertaining" -- i.e., it doesn't feed viewers a happy-think interpretation of reality. Mass audiences prefer the fairy-tale pandering of The Blind Side, which says that America isn't racist because a sassy white Memphis millionairess adopted a black child and raised him to be a football star.
I don't find The Informant! to be cynical or vindictive, even with Damon's formidable impersonation of a puffed-up executive Vice President. The movie isn't likely to inspire other corporate employees to step up and reveal company crimes, as the law enforcement agencies are staffed by individuals looking to score big convictions, and plenty of priorities come before looking out for informants. We're presented with a parade of law officials that can't understand why Whitacre is performing his noble service. The big government lawyers sure as hell wouldn't blow the whistle on their own superiors, unless something was in it for them and they were thoroughly protected. As it turns out, Mark Whitacre's motives are anything but idealistic.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of The Informant! is an excellent encoding of this smartly-filmed black comedy. I saw the show on a big screen and liked the image derived from the Red One camera, which Steven Soderbergh first tried out in his previous Che . The system gets a mixed rating from industry technicians but Soderbergh believes in it wholeheartedly. Colors are bright in the corporate offices and we see plenty of detail in Mark Whitacre's smug little super-success lifestyle -- the beautiful house in the cornfield, his spiffy Ferrari "daily driver". With so many bright new business students eager to get out in the public sector and "create wealth" (= skim unearned profit) from the American success machine, it's no wonder that our system doesn't work. Whitacre is a poster boy for this ethic of corporate entitlement.
The Blu-ray disc carries two extras. A brief group of cut scenes are mostly unnecessary, although it's nice seeing a bit where the FBI agents worry whether Whitacre is running a scam on them. We also see the actual confrontation where Whitacre is ordered out of the corporate headquarters, when he's still dreaming of being elevated to the presidency. Steve Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns' commentary is both informative and entertaining. They tell us that the film's comedy angle and the detached voiceover were part of their plan from the beginning. Soderbergh proudly explains his hiring of a number of standup comedians as actors, in substantial roles as well as fleeting bits: Tom Wilson, Joel McHale, Tom Papa, Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, Dwayne Andreas. Both Smothers Brothers turn up in courtroom scenes, and do quite well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Informant! Blu-ray rates:
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