An almost true story about corporate crime

The Informant! (M). Running time: 108 minutes. Director: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale

Matt Damon in The InformantThe Informant! tells a true story — sort of. In the early 1990s Mark Whitacre, an executive at American agricultural powerhouse Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), became an informant for an FBI investigation into an ADM price-fixing scheme. His story was published in 2000 in a non-fiction book by New York Times investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald.

It's a story for our times. Indeed, Soderbergh's film adaptation is a blackly comic satire of corporate crime. It's no po-faced critique: a disclaimer notes that the film contains fictional dialogue and amalgamated characters — 'So there'. This, along with the cheesy '70s style score and the exclamation point in the title banner, helps to set the playful tone of the film. Playful, but sharp as a boning knife, and The Informant! fervently slashes the culture of corporate greed.

Whitacre, as portrayed by a tubby, jovial and bad-mustachioed Damon, is by all outward appearances a clean-cut family man, whose generally sunny and naïve outlook is revealed by his cheery internal monologues.

The FBI come on to the scene to investigate allegations (by Whitacre) of extortion against a rival company. But Whitacre sees the possibility of a confidant, even a friend, in the earnest features of Special Agent Brian Shepherd (Bakula). Whitacre lets Shepherd in on a few details about ADM's shady dealings with its overseas counterparts.

Whitacre is enlisted to spy on his bosses and colleagues. At first, he is enamoured of this covert new role (watch his eyes light up when they ask him to wear a wire). He takes to it with aplomb — perhaps too much. But the glamour of living a 'Crichton novel' wears off. Whitacre becomes reticent. You have to wonder if something is up.

Obviously, the real-life Whitacre's story is on the public record, but if you're not familiar with it, don't spoil it for yourself. This film banks on its seemingly endless bag of nifty surprises. The less you know going in, the more you will enjoy it. Suffice it to say that Whitacre is not the self-professed 'white hat' he claims to be.

Whitacre's internal monologues reveal how frequently he becomes preoccupied. Even during dramatic moments his mind wanders to hilarious observations of mundane details, from neckties to sushi ('Raw fish. Who was the first to go there? The man without a grill'). It's a clever device. Usually voiceover narration is used for exposition; here it is used for misdirection. We know only what Whitacre tells those around him. And not all of it is true.

Whitacre's relationship with Shepherd is key. Shepherd and his partner Special Agent Bob Herndon (McHale) carry a photo of Whitacre, his wife and son, to remind them continually of the risk that their informant — a flesh and blood human being — is taking. This shields them from becoming inhumane in their pursuit of justice. Ironically, it also blinds them to Whitacre's duplicity. The blurring of professional boundaries leads to betrayal.

Throughout, Whitacre seems detached from the moment. The gradual revelation of just how detached becomes a running gag, with a sinister and sympathetic edge. After all, the monsters in Whitacre's corporate world are not always easy to identify. Neither are the guilty parties in a company culture where greed is just part of the job.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: The Informant! Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula



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