If you’re in the mood to see a movie, but you’re feeling indecisive, go see “The Informant.” Steven Soderbergh’s new film flouts the conventions of genre by blending dark comedy and thriller elements to a true story. The film uses Kurt Eichenwald’s nonfiction book of the same title as its source material and stars a chubby Matt Damon as the protagonist Mark Whitacre.
Whitacre first garnered public attention in 1995, when it was revealed that he had been acting as an informant for the FBI in a price-fixing investigation against his own company. As President of the Archer Daniels Midland’s BioProducts Division, Whitacre is the highest-level executive in FBI history to turn whistleblower.
From the early to mid-nineties, Whitacre voluntarily cooperated with the FBI by recording hundreds of tapes worth of evidence against food conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (ADM).
A bit of background information is necessary here: ADM is a multibillion dollar company based in Decatur, Illinois that produces food and additives such as oils, sweeteners and starches.
One of these additives, a corn-based amino acid called lysine, was the focal point of ADM’s illegal activity when the company conspired to coordinate the price of lysine with several of its international competitors. This act violated federal antitrust laws by artificially driving the price of lysine.
“Basically, everyone is a victim of corporate crime before they finish breakfast,” remarks Whitacre to an FBI agent (played Scott Bakula).
The film kicks off with the suspicion of corporate espionage: lysine production is down and Whitacre reports to his superiors that a Japanese ompetitor is attempting to extort money from ADM.
The FBI is called in to investigate, but when Whitacre reveals that he knows of ADM’s illegal activities, the focus of the investigation shifts from extortion and espionage to breaches of antitrust laws.
Whitacre agrees to become the FBI’s informant, accruing hundreds of hours worth of evidence over several years. When the FBI finally obtains enough evidence to begin prosecuting ADM, it is revealed that Whitacrehimself is a man of dubious honesty. Because of his own illegal activities, Whitacre finds himself on the wrong side of the law.
Although “The Informant” sounds like the usual thriller with complicated plot twists, Soderbergh’s handling of the material and Damon’s subtle acting give it a unique, quirky feel.
Damon presents a fascinating protagonist—a character caught between his own insistence that he is “the good guy in all of this,” paired with his tendency to compulsively lie.
This creates an effect of an unreliable protagonist, one whom the audience never knows whether to champion or condemn. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burn’s decision to include Whitacre’s wandering, sometimes bizarre ruminations in the form of a voiceover keeps the audience from growing too distant from him.
Ultimately, “The Informant” dances an amusing line between thriller and farce. Supporting characters are played by comedians such as Tom Wilson, Tom Papa, and Seattle’s own Joel McHale. All of them, including Damon, deliver their lines with a dash of satire, which keeps the movie from getting weighed down by the sometimes-complicated plot.
It’s not a film for everyone, but it’s an enjoyable ride.