Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


An almost true story about corporate crime

  • 03 December 2009

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

The 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