The Informant

In one summer we go from Public Enemies, a film that suffered from too much fidelity to its true story, to The Informant which plays fast and loose with the facts of its equally true inspiration for comic effect. The latter approach works brilliantly this time.

The Informant is based on a huge price fixing scandal that rocked agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland in the early nineties. The key figure in the scandal was Mark Whitacre, played by Matt Damon, an up and coming executive with the firm. It’s not exactly clear why Whitacre decides to turn informant. He is a rising star in ADM with a huge salary and some dirty secrets of his own that don’t come out until later, so he has a lot to lose. This ambiguity is part of the character.  Whitacre, as played in the film–an important distinction here– is an habitual liar, who craves attention and can’t even be honest to himself. He spins a web that starts with a lie to his boss about a saboteur in the company. This brings in the FBI in the form of Special Agent Brian Shepard, played by Scott Bakula. Shepard does his best to follow the convolutions thrown at him by Whitacre, especially when the price fixing conspiracy is revealed.

The main draw here is Matt Damon’s excellent performance. He subsumes himself completely into the role, putting on weight and wearing heavy make up to make him look like a pudgy executive. More important is the performance. Whitacre is a smart man but also an easily distracted one, especially when his attention is caught by something that appeals to his vanity. This is caught best in a series of voice-overs, which start out as almost non sequitors.  In one example he’s just informed the FBI about the price fixing, a moment that changes his life and he’s thinking about what a great listener Special Agent Shepard is and how he could see them going fishing. As things get more serious for Whitacre, the voice-overs get more self serving and self-pitying as he blames everyone but himself for his troubles.

Scott Bakula is terrific as Shepard, humanizing the corporate gloss of the FBI agent stereotype to show the frustration of man whose career depends on this increasingly unreliable source. The rest of the cast is wonderful too.

Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns used Kurt Eichenwald’s book by the same name as a starting point for this entertaining movie.  My understanding is that the book is very different in  tone. So if you want to have a good time, see the movie. If you want to find out what really happened, read that book.

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