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The Informant!

Steven Soderbergh

Having read Kurt Eichenwald's book about Mark Whitacre, I knew what to expect from the movie version: a fantastic performance by Matt Damon. Playing a manic depressive biochemist with delusions of grandeur (and with the depressive bits left out), Mr Damon has a field day, flashing a smile that carries a palpable but invisible menace. His Mark Whitacre, family man and diligent executive, is nevertheless as dangerous as a non-violent guy can be. He nearly wrecks the careers of the FBI agents who trust him to help their investigation of price-fixing at Archer Daniels Midland, the agricultural conglomerate. Whitacre did help the government, but he also discredited himself by embezzling millions of dollars from the company.

Although set in the early Nineties, the filmmaker has shrewdly infused the movie with the sense of earlier, simpler times, when, as it almost seems, bipolar disorder didn't exist. Today, I expect, the pathological nature of Mark Whitacre's behavior would be quickly and widely recognized as that of a man on a manic roll. The good Midwesterners of a while back don't seem to have heard of such problems: to them, Whitacre is a positive, perhaps slightly over-enthusiastic executive with a great future ahead of him. When he tells Agents Shepard and Herndon (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) that he wants to put a stop to the price-fixing because it's wrong, they believe him unquestioningly. His actions certainly suggest that he is telling the truth. What the agents can't grasp in Shepard's case, forever is that Whitacre is constitutionally incapable of divulging "the whole truth," because that would encompass acknowledging "the whole lie" of his embezzlements.

Although Mr Soderbergh has assembled a stupendous supporting cast, the most important member of his team, after Matt Damon, is composer Marvin Hamlisch, whose score for The Informant! is our mordant guide to what's going on in Whitacre's mind. While the characters take Whitacre at his word, the sound track advises us to do otherwise. Whenever Whitacre is engaged in derring-do for the government (wearing wires into business meetings and so on), brilliantly pin-pointed guitar riffs, quoting the leitmotif of the James Bond movies, tell us how Whitacre sees himself. When he fatuously tells his yard man that he has been assigned the number "double-oh-fourteen" by the government, because he's twice as gifted as the fictional operative, we've been primed to laugh merrily. Without the music, the grandiosity of the statement might cause us to recoil. With it, we know that Whitacre is simply having the time of his life.

The tension between Mark Whitacre's Weltanschauung and the more reality-based perceptions of his colleagues at ADM and his government handlers is never resolved, and this is the not-so-funny secret of Mr Soderbergh's comedy. Whitacre goes to prison for a few years; when he comes out, his wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), is there to pick him up. You can see a smiling Mark Whitacre at his Wikipedia entry today. But you will search for genuine consequences in vain. Stuff happens! As a snapshot of corporate culture, The Informant! holds the view that while regular guys might plod along beneath their eyeshades, dynamic companies are run by risk-seeking adolescents who advance on the strength of their dazzle the very quality that, you'd expect, a business concern would discourage. One might wonder whether it's a good idea for commerce to be "sexy," but in fact it has not developed that far: as The Informant! so clearly shows, go-getters like Mark Whitacre play corporations as if they were a kind of game.

What kind of game? Also part of the sound track is the stream of Mark Whitacre's consciousness, unspooled for us in Mr Damon's boy-scout voice. What's interesting is what Whitacre doesn't talk to himself about. He complains about striped neckties; he contemns a Japanese erotic fixation; he wonders how to pronounce the name of his Porsche. But he never expresses a shred of anxiety or remorse. He isn't worried about being caught; he isn't worried that Ginger, when she finds out about his stolen millions, will think less of him (indeed, she doesn't!). What frets Whitacre is the possibility that he might be bored, that there might not be any action. This would seem to be a not unreasonable worry for anyone living in the heart of Illinois. As for anyone toiling in the fields of agribusiness. The Informant! teaches us that a clever guy can make trouble anywhere. (September 2009)

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