Movie Review: The Informant!
By Matthew Huntley
September 28, 2009
Even if The Informant! was an overwrought piece of fiction, it would still be hard to believe Mark Whitacre's story. But the fact that it's based on actual events, with dramatic compromises of course (we're bluntly told about this even before the Warner Bros. logo starts), makes it even more outrageous. This is a film about a man so unbelievable that in between laughing at him, our jaw is gaping because of how inconceivable his life became through a series of lies — convincing lies, yes, but lies nonetheless.
This isn't a film you want to know a lot about before going in. The more it reveals itself, the more fun it is to watch. You may already be familiar with the story if you've read Kurt Eichenwald's book of the same name, but if you haven't, don't start it yet. It's likely the book offers even more detail and reading it could take away the spontaneous and unpredictable pleasure of the film.
Director Steven Soderbergh generates the spontaneity by keeping us in the dark as much as everyone else around Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) — his wife; the FBI; his bosses; his lawyers. We find ourselves asking the same questions and are just as puzzled and frustrated. We're desperate to know the truth, which is why the film is able to hold onto us so well.
On the surface, Mark is a stocky, boyish and seemingly absent-minded man. He appears innocent and emits a childish disposition with his owl-eyed expression and giddy enthusiasm. As intelligent as Mark is (he earned a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry from Cornell University), he's like a big kid who always needs to be watched. Lucky for him he has a loving wife named Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) and two adopted children. He also loves being corporate vice president of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a Fortune 500 company that specializes in agricultural products.
In November of 1992, Mark tells one of ADM's executives he received a disturbing phone call from one of their Japanese competitors, informing him there's a mole at ADM who's been transmitting confidential information, which might explain the recent virus at the plant. The Japanese man is supposedly demanding $10 million in exchange for the mole's identity, but Mark's boss wants him to talk to an FBI agent (Scott Bakula) first.
Mark's ordeal doesn't stop there. At the behest of his wife, Mark also tells the FBI about the illegal price-fixing taking place at ADM, of which Mark is also guilty. This would go on to become one of the biggest whistle blows in history, and what's funny is that Mark thinks his helping the FBI will make him the frontrunner for president of ADM. It's quite an understatement when Ginger says, "That's completely illogical." But the look on Mark's face tells us that he really believes that, which is funny, but also sad.
The film isn't necessarily told from Mark's perspective (if it had been, we might have known the truth a lot earlier). Even though we hear his inner monologue, full of tangential observations and nonsense in which he tends to trail off, we don't feel like we know the real Mark. Does Mark even know his real self? We listen to what he says, but we're never sure what he actually knows. The film is wise not to tell us because it keeps the narrative moving. If we knew what Mark was doing the whole time, we'd only get to see other people's reactions. As it is, we share and take part in their reactions, and that's a lot more effective.
Even though I knew the film had to stay relatively grounded (with it being based on actual events and all), I was never sure where it was going. The dramatic elements become fairly intense and there's a line at the end that's so poignant, sad and revealing that it justifies why we're able to like Mark instead of chastise him. He's a bright, kind and ambitious man, but we feel sorry for him because he really doesn't know why he's doing these things (the book offers an explanation, but it's more affecting for the movie to hold back).
This could be the single best performance of Matt Damon's career, and it's not just because he gained 30 pounds for the role. Damon's acting is internal and I imagine playing a man like Whitacre was difficult because he was asked to play an intelligent man who wasn't playing with a full deck. Damon doesn't play Whitacre as dumb (on the contrary, he's quite brilliant), but instead as a man so high on his own desires that it detaches him from reality. He really does believe he's become the Tom Cruise character from "The Firm," which is pathetic and sad all at once. Damon makes Whitacre a man who's increasingly frustrating to deal with but also enormously likable, probably because he seems so harmless and we know it's not his intention to hurt people.
Given the way The Informant! is filmed, you wouldn't expect it to be this lively and entertaining. Soderbergh shoots it in warm, soft tones and in banal locations, which enhance the realistic aspect of it, but it's the story and performances that make it come alive. Because it's not a traditionally commercial film, filled with facts and real-life events, you'd think it would become slow and tedious, but it's anything but. It's sort of like Mark in that regard — we think we're getting one thing, when in actuality we're getting something completely different. In this case, different is good.