Review: The Informant!

the informant one sheetSet in the early 1990’s, The Informant! has the feel of an Austin Powers movie, from the titles to the music (here supplied by über-composer Marvin Hamlish). It’s a movie about the evils of large corporations — in this case Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) — and what happens to whistleblowers who follow their conscience and help the gov’t build a case against evildoers, even when they’re your coworkers.

Or is it?
The Informant! tells the story of Mark Whitacre (beautifully played by Matt Damon), a senior executive who worked at ADM in the 1990s and turned FBI informant. It’s not all exactly as things transpired, though, as the opening titles warn us: “This film is based on real events, but not everything you’ll see is real, some are a fabrication. So there.”
The film seems to be about how ADM conspires with foreign agribusiness to fix the price of lysine (a valuable amino acid extracted from corn) and how Whiteacre rejects the pressure to get involved in the illegal practice. Initially, Whitacre shares with his boss, and then the FBI, that the company is being blackmailed by Japanese agricultural conglomerate Ajinomoto. Ajinomoto has planted a virus in the ADM lysine production facility and was demanding $2mil to send information on how to kill the virus and restore production levels.
But as this strange, amazing and quite hilarious film leads us through the events between 1992 and 1996, we learn that the real story isn’t about ADM’s business practices, it’s not about the incompetent FBI agents assigned to work with Whitacre, but all about Mark Whitacre himself and the strange fantasy world he inhabited.
The Informant! is one of the freshest, wittiest and most entertaining films so far this year. Go see it. Then marvel that it’s based on real events.

What makes this story so fascinating is that ADM really was engaged in illegal price fixing during the early 1990’s and that it was the efforts of executive Mark Whitacre that contributed substantially to the company getting into trouble, having to pay massive fines and various executives going to jail.
Whitacre was a complete goof, however, and relished his role of FBI informant, going as far as to show off the surveillance gear he was given, examine the “hidden” cameras during corporate meetings, and even tell the press that he was a “person of interest” during the latter part of the investigation.
There’s an appealing level of ambiguity in Whitacre’s relationship with his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) that makes it unclear how much she understood of what was really happening versus what he was telling her as events unfolded. Though the film is set in the 1990’s, she seems to be trapped in the 70’s and their home is similarly decorated slightly out of step with what was contemporary fashion of that era. 

the informant production still

Whitacre narrates an FBI surveillance recording, from within a bathroom stall
The lead agent assigned to the case is FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and he’s another goofball too, earnest, trusting, and entirely too clueless about what’s really going on as this complicated case gradually comes apart.  Some of the scenes with Shepard are astonishing, including one where he demonstrates to Whitacre how to tap a phone while at a public pay phone in a busy hotel. “There was a mix-up, we couldn’t get a room” he explains to the alarmed ADM executive.
One of the funniest elements in The Informant! is Whitacre’s internal monologue, which demonstrate time and again that while important events were transpiring, he was completely tuned out, thinking about mundane facets of his life rather than paying attention. Whitacre also explains some of his philosophy during the film, including how he likes to floss in the shower while having the conditioner sit in his hair. “All these time wasters,” he explains, “they really add up!”
The lighting and cinematography is perfect for this retro piece, often overexposed and over-lit. The ultimate effect is of a slightly deteriorating home movie, which, coupled with the Hamlisch music and Austin Powers-esque titles, give the film a whimsical sense that at first seems at odds with the material, but gradually fits better and better, until the film wraps. When you realize that Steven Soderbergh was in charge of cinematography, it’s clear why it contributes so much to the feel and mood of the movie.
Perhaps everything that transpires is the inevitable result of the ADM corporate philosophy of “The customer is the enemy, competitors are our friends”, coupled with an executive who can’t differentiate between his imaginary life and reality. It’s something like The Fountainhead meets The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Well, maybe not, but I’ll say this: The Informant! is one of the freshest, most amusing movies I’ve seen so far this year.

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