Mark Whitacre seemed like the embodiment of the American Dream; “seemed” is the key word here because in film, as well as reality, things are not always what they appear to be at first.
Steven Soderbergh’s new picture, which opens in theatres this week, tells the true story of Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), a high-ranking vice president at the Archer Daniels Midland food-additive corporation, who blew the whistle on his company’s illegal price-fixing scheme in the 1990s. But unlike other whistle-blower films, such as “The Insider” for example, “The Informant!” is not about a hero in a white hat. The more the film progresses, the less and less noble Mark seems.
It all begins when Mark tells his bosses that he has discovered an industrial spy/saboteur. When they bring in the FBI, Mark then goes on to privately inform the agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) that ADM has been conspiring with its global competitors to fix prices in the international market.
Mark agrees to help the agents by wearing a wire and taping the illegal meetings. Despite little coaching, he does quite well as an informant; he thinks quickly and is able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. For example, in one incident, the FBI knew that the businessmen would be meeting in a certain hotel room and placed a hidden camera there in advance. But when the men see the room, they complain it is too small and want the hotel to put them in a larger room. Mark volunteers to “call” the hotel to request a larger room, but he holds his hand on the receiver and pretends to have a conversation where he’s told that there are no bigger rooms available.
Over a period of two-and-a-half years, Mark makes more than 200 tapes and helps the FBI to build an airtight case against the ADM executives. At first he seems quite admirable. But once the ADM lawyers start their own investigation, new details come to light involving kickbacks, embezzlement, and offshore accounts. Mark’s story keeps changing. The line, “What I said before was a lie,” is uttered too many times to remember. The irony is that the whistle-blower may turn out to be more corrupt than those on whom he is blowing the whistle.
If not likable, Mark is certainly a fascinating character, played with gleeful relish by Matt Damon. He’s incredibly smart and thinks that he can play anyone. At one point he even claims to believe that he’ll be running the company after he exposes the shenanigans of those above him. But in the end, of course, he’s in too deep and becomes a victim of his own greed.
One of the more interesting aspects of Soderbergh’s film is the use of voice-overs. Throughout, Mark interjects rambling commentary about interesting topics that seem, at least on the surface, irrelevant to the story. He speaks, for example, of polar bears hiding their black noses to camouflage themselves, the mist rising off a warm swimming pool in winter, a man who makes a comment about a tie and then promptly dies, two different breeds of butterflies that look nearly identical but only one is poisonous. They are fascinating little digressions by themselves, but later you realize that they connect to Mark’s life on a thematic level.
There are, however, a few little problems with this film. “The Informant!” (note the exclamation point) is billed as a comedy; but I have to tell you, I didn’t really find it all that funny. Bizarre and outrageous, yes; a bit like “Fargo” actually, as things keep getting inexplicably worse. And it’s visually weird, too, as Mark wears a bad toupee and dresses more for the 70s than 90s. But funny? I don’t know about that. Although there was a guy in the theatre several rows behind me who kept laughing loudly through the whole thing, so maybe there were just some things that I didn’t get.
I also want to say that I was left with a very frustrating feeling at the end just trying to figure out what was really going on and who Mark Whitacre really was. It’s like peeling away layers of an onion. You keep finding out that what you learned before wasn’t true and go deeper and deeper; but when you get to the center of the onion, there’s nothing there.
Sure, you’re left with an ironic tale of greed and corruption that eventually leads to a downfall, but the major unanswered question is, who is Mark Whitaker? He’s told so many lies, we’re not sure what actually really did happen (well, the price-fixing, that was true). That’s not necessarily a fault with the film, and I can understand why Soderbergh chose to end it on such a confusing note, but it did leave me with a feeling of frustration as I left the theatre.
Finally, I have to say that the scandals portrayed in this film seem rather mild compared to what’s been on the news over the last year. What’s the ADM price-fixing, or a few million in kickbacks, compared to the billions and billions embezzled by Madoff and AIG and Merrill Lynch and so many others that I can’t name them all? Our entire economy collapsed last year thanks to corporate greed; you’d think that a film about a comparatively minor white collar crime of the 1990s would at least foreshadow the economic catastrophe that would come a decade later. But I really got no such hint. Maybe it was there and I just missed it. Instead what I took from the film was that there once were a few rotten apples, they went to prison for a few years, and then all’s right with the world.
But I look around the real world at the destroyed-but-maybe-maybe-maybe-rebounding economy around me, and that’s not at all what I see. Instead I see a corporate culture corrupted by greed that turned the American Dream into a nightmare. As I said once before, I want my movies to reflect my world; “The Informant!” doesn’t do that for me.