Friday, September 18, 2009

The Informant!: Tall Tale

The Informant! (2009) • View trailer for The Informant!
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.18.09
Buy DVD: The Informant!• Buy Blu-Ray: The Informant! [Blu-ray]

The American corporate culture is about to join Nazis and Muslim fanatics on the list of cinema's villains we love to hate, and I couldn't be more delighted.

If we can't find a way to toss rapacious corporate thugs into jail and throw away the keys, then at least we can anticipate the vicarious thrill of seeing them humiliated on the big screen.
FBI agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula, left) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale,
center) become increasingly puzzled by the behavior of corporate whistle-blower
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), who genuinely believes that his own company
will hail him as a hero after he exposes a massive price-fixing scheme
orchestrated by his bosses. Could anybody really be that naive?

Director Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! adopts a gleefully wicked tone for its depiction of a recent corporate crime, with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns taking pains to exaggerate the best elements of Kurt Eichenwald's book  The Informant (A True Story)  in the service of what emerges as a sharp-edged satire on truth, justice and the American (business) way.

Soderbergh always gets great work from both cast and crew, but special mention must be made of Burns, star Matt Damon and soundtrack composer Marvin Hamlisch, all of whom perform above and beyond the call of duty. Damon's performance is mesmerizing, and he bites off Burns' marvelously arch dialogue with considerable brio; Hamlisch's whimsically retro themes, evoking everything from 1960s TV shows to James Bond scores, masterfully counterpoints the increasingly erratic behavior of these frazzled characters.

Soderbergh also deserves praise for two additional elements: a series of the best-timed double-takes and slow burns ever caught on film; and the cleverest use of voice-over I've heard in years, in the form of Damon's interior monologues. Pay close attention to the latter, because they're not nearly as random as they appear at first blush.

And while it might be useful to be familiar with what actually went down at the agri-industry giant Archer Daniels Midland in the 1990s, you'll have a much better time if this saga's mid-point reverse catches you by surprise. Assumptions and expectations are rent asunder, and you'll suddenly need to watch the film's first half again, to better judge its plot points against all this new information.

That's cunning writing and shrewd directing  not to mention richly layered acting  and all concerned should take a bow.

Damon stars as Mark Whitacre, a bio-scientist with a facility for languages and a keen understanding of the business world, and something of a rising star at ADM in the early 1990s. He's in charge of the division that is rushing to perfect its production of lysine, an amino acid essential to human health; ADM sees bucketfuls of money to be made by synthesizing lysine and then using it as an additive in its many food products.

Unfortunately, the project isn't going well  indeed, it's hemorrhaging $7 million per month  and Whitacre can't figure out why. Then, the revelation: After hearing from a friendly contact working for a Japanese competitor, Whitacre quietly tells his boss that he has uncovered a case of industrial espionage. The lysine project is being sabotaged by an ADM mole actually in the employ of the Japanese rival, and the problem can be made to "go away" after a stiff blackmail payment.

Rather than succumb to this threat, Whitacre's boss contacts the FBI; Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), the sole FBI agent in ADM's home base of Decatur, Ill., soon arrives at Whitacre's home to bug the business line that has been used for the blackmail calls. But then the situation gets complicated: Whitacre's wife, Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), presses her husband to be forthcoming about something else he apparently has shared with her.

With Damon delivering a flawless blend of indecision, uncertainty and a Boy Scout-ish desire to be perceived as "the white hat," Whitacre confesses that ADM is involved with its foreign "competitors" in a multi-national price-fixing scheme regarding the production and roll-out of lysine. The ramifications are huge, and Whitacre has the scientific savvy to put the matter into perspective: Lysine will be used as an additive in everything.

At first stunned but soon delighted by this information, Shepard and his new state capital-based partner, Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), persuade Whitacre to wear a wire and carry a hidden tape recorder in his briefcase, both to be used during future off-the-radar meetings involving lysine. And when the U.S. Justice Department demands more precise information, wanting an air-tight case, Whitacre obligingly delivers the goods, over a period of several years.


Whitacre's judgment, a source of concern to Shepard and Herndon from the very beginning, becomes increasingly erratic. At times he's giddy as a schoolboy, convinced that he has been tagged to become an action hero; Whitacre dubs himself "Agent 0014," because he's "twice as smart as Agent 007." He also has the bafflingly naive notion that after he "takes down" ADM, and its chiefs are sent to jail, he'll rise from the ashes, phoenix-like, and be hailed as the one honest man best able to lead the company into the 21st century.

"You may find," cautions Justice Agent Robin Mann (Ann Cusack ... yes, one of those Cusacks), "that the corporate climate has, ah, changed for you, at that point."

Damon, ever the chameleon, inhabits this part so completely  he gained 30 pounds for the role  that we can't see the slightest trace of the buff actor who cuts such a ferocious figure in the Bourne series. Damon makes Whitacre almost laughably inept: the stereotypical lab genius who hasn't the faintest idea how to navigate the real world, whose digressive inner ramblings spin off into inane musings about ties, polar bears and frequent flier miles.

At the same time, though, Whitacre is impressively light on his feet and swift to recover. Watch Damon, for example, when Whitacre gets an unexpected call from Shepard while his bosses are in the office; it's almost as if we can see the data being processed in Whitacre's brain, his eyes very briefly remote, until the proper response clicks into place and his face relaxes, his gaze once more in perfect focus.

Rarely has an actor so skillfully demonstrated the onion-like layers of so intriguingly complex a character.

In her own way, Lynskey delivers a performance almost as chilling as her unforgettable debut in Heavenly Creatures, which brought her to our attention back in 1994. Ginger, always dressed 30 years out of step  as if emulating Jackie Kennedy  is the sort of reflexively loyal wife who'll always back her husband, simply because he is her husband.

Ginger certainly isn't stupid, and it's never clear how much she actually knows about these increasingly complicated events, but her allegiance is unswerving ... to the point of being dangerous. Consider Lynskey's narrow-eyed performance here, next time some straying politician confesses his sins in front of a TV microphone, and we wonder why in God's name his wife would stand resolutely at his side. Lynskey's Ginger is that sort of wife.

Bakula is spot-on as the sort of stalwart, honorable federal investigator who makes us believe that justice will out; Tony Hale is memorable, in the third act, as the attorney Whitacre hires to look out for his interests.

Soderbergh also dabbles in some stunt casting, which finds numerous stand-up comics in brief parts. The most famous are Tom and Dick Smothers, the former as ADM Chairman Dwayne Andreas, the latter as a judge who presides over a pivotal trial.

The Informant! reminds me, in all the best ways, of 1993's Barbarians at the Gates, another fact-based saga of corporate malfeasance  in that case, the 1980s Nabisco takeover  given an equally pungent satiric (and sometimes exaggerated) spin. Transforming such real-world issues into the stuff of intellectual farce may be the only way to make them palatable; straight recitations might be bleak enough to make us cry.

This much is certain: Those who don't already know the outcome of Mark Whitacre's windmill-tilting quest against Archer Daniels Midland will be scrambling for trial transcripts the moment this film concludes.

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