Officially, he was a “cooperating witness.” Nonetheless, here’s why the movie about Mark Whitacre is called The Informant!
In 1992, Whitacre was an executive at Archer Daniels Midland Corporation, the Illinois-based “supermarket to the world.” His job was to determine why ADM’s production of ubiquitous food additive had faltered, and to do something about it. Whitacre soon informed his bosses that the company had been sabotaged. Enter the FBI. Then he informed the FBI that his bosses were involved with price-fixing. Enter the attorneys. Then he informed the attorneys that his FBI contact had bribed, assaulted and instructed him to destroy evidence. But some of Whitacre’s information was not reliable. For instance, he neglected to inform ADM shareholders that he’d been embezzling millions of their dollars. Enter the journalists.
Fat Will Hunting? Matt Damon suits up in more ways than one to play corporate mole Mark Whitacre in The Informant!
And that’s not the whole story. The whole story required more than 600 pages in Kurt Eichenwald’s bestselling book, The Informant. The movie didn’t have room for the whole story, so it left some things out, but put in others, like a fattened Matt Damon as Whitacre and an exclamation mark. It was directed by one-time Charlottesville resident Steven Soderbergh, and is nothing if not conspicuously punctuated.
Who knew a conspiracy for world domination would consist of a bunch of puffy execs crowded into a hotel room nonchalantly drawing pie charts with magic markers? Thanks to Mark Whitacre, there is actual video of this. Which seems inherently cinematic, except that it also seems inherently boring.
So it’s not a bad idea to play this story for laughs. Aren’t we overdue for a great black comedy about white-collar crime? Unfortunately, The Informant! isn’t it. For starters, making Matt Damon funny doesn’t seem to come naturally to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who excelled at making him serious in The Bourne Ultimatum. It helps that Burns cleverly positions Whitacre as a distractible, delusional, unreliable narrator by funneling a chunk of Eichenwald’s reporting into Damon’s manic voiceover narration. But if bipolar disorder really was the reason for Whitacre’s mania, that’s less funny.
This production’s executive overseer is Participant Media, whose mission, “to entertain audiences first, then to invite them to participate in making a difference,” has yielded such earnest, self-satisfied outings as An Inconvenient Truth, The Soloist and Food, Inc. Suffice to say it has not yielded many comedies. But with the Participant M.O. in mind, and Soderbergh being both the Ocean’s 11 guy and the Erin Brockovich guy, it’s easy to see how he might seem like the go-to guy for The Informant!
Soderbergh dutifully gathers put-upon reaction shots from FBI agents played by Scott Bakula and Joel McHale, plus a few from Melanie Lynskey as Whitacre’s wife, and punches the non-action up with sprightly Marvin Hamlisch music cues. He encourages Damon to enjoy himself. Yet Whitacre and his plight barely registers. He had a way with information, all right, but wasn’t so cooperative after all.