Funny as Steven Soderbergh's new comedy The Informant! (rated R for language) is, it could have succeeded equally well as a drama. All the elements are there-corruption, cover-ups, espionage-that made films like The Insider and Michael Clayton favorites among critics. But by giving what might have been just another corporate whistleblower tale an ironic tone, Soderbergh creates something that is often more thoughtful and far more entertaining.
The year is 1992 and Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is the youngest divisional president of the country's largest agricultural conglomerate, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). At only 32, he has gained nearly every trapping of wealth a man might want, including a mansion with an eight-car garage and the luxury cars to fill it. His future looks unendingly bright until a manufacturing meltdown leads him to let the FBI in on the company's big secret: ADM is defrauding consumers by fixing prices with their competitors.
Never before has an executive at Whitacre's level turned informer. Why does he do it? Partly because of his of wife's urging to "do the right thing" and partly because he sees himself as one of the good guys. He wears a white hat while his price-fixing colleagues wear black hats, Mark tells FBI agents Shepherd (Scott Bakula) and Daniels (Joel McHale). Only it turns out that, like all people since the beginning of creation, the vision Mark casts of himself isn't quite so noble as he likes to believe. And while helping the FBI bring down his company for stealing from the public, Whitacre's doing some stealing of his own.
It takes a special kind of arrogance to embezzle while spying for the FBI, and Whitacre's behavior will be familiar to any addict. Whether it be alcohol, drugs, or, as in Whitacre's case, money, the desire for the substance creates recklessness and self-delusion. He convinces himself that no one sees the sin he is committing or, if they do see, that he'll be able to lie his way out of it. When this fails and he's cornered, Whitacre's feeble justification for his wrongdoing is amusing precisely because it is so common to man. Who among us hasn't tried to explain away some offense by claiming we were pushed to it by circumstances?
However, while Whitacre's foibles offer great satirical material and Damon's performance will have those who like their humor offbeat rolling, toward the end The Informant! starts to feel more cruel than clever. Scenes that trade on Whitacre's bipolar disorder for laughs are particularly cringe-inducing. And though the film disclaims at the outset that it was inspired by one reporter's interpretation of events and is not even a point-by-point recounting of that, it is still disappointing that it never alludes to Whitacre's redemption. In fact, till the very end it shows him persisting in his lies, a portrayal at odds not only with interviews Whitacre has given but also with the statements of the FBI agents involved. (A cynical reviewer might even wonder whether Soderbergh and executive producer George Clooney treat Whitacre with more scorn than they otherwise would have because of his faith.)
Regardless of that failing, The Informant! is still instructive in its send-up of the twisted logic we all use when we try to defend ourselves against God's standards. The only correct response, as Mark Whitacre's real life evidences (see "Finding peace," Sept. 26, 2009), is to realize we have no defense and appeal to a higher authority for pardon.
To view a video of Mark Whitacre's recent appearance at The King's College in New York, click here.