If any further proof was needed that the concept of corporate integrity is only marginally different than malfeasance, then The Informant! provides it and then some. Based on the true story of a whistleblower who gets too consumed with lying to recognize the truth himself, director Steven Soderbergh’s latest turns anti-capitalist fare into commercial entertainment, crafting a studio charmer cut loosely from the mold of his Ocean’s movies while recontextualizing residual ideas he previously explored in his independent, two-part opus about Che Guevara.
But while the filmmaker brandishes both the hatchet and the scalpel in this particular portrait of corporate recrimination and personal redemption, what makes The Informant! so effective is less its political subtext or even commercial appeal but the complete and comically terrifying portrait of its main character, embodied by Matt Damon as a guy who knows all of the angles but doesn’t possess enough guile to know quite what to do with them.
Damon plays Mark Whitacre, an executive at an agricultural-industry giant who inexplicably becomes a whistleblower after informing his bosses of a plot to blackmail the company for several million dollars. Whether because of altruism or desperation, Whitacre eagerly complies with the requests of Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), the two FBI agents assigned to him, including wearing a wire and carrying recording equipment. But before long, Brian and Bob begin to realize that Whitacre isn’t telling the whole truth, and moreover, has helped himself to some of the company’s money without their knowledge. Soon, the FBI’s attempt to uncover corporate corruption has become completely lost in an expansive (and expensive) legal morass, with Whitacre only confusing things more with his escalating series of half-truths and full-on falsehoods.
After a long stretch of speculation, investigation, and often, fabrication about the motivations for characters’ bad behavior, it’s good to see Hollywood get back to the days when it just plain happens and audiences are left alone to figure out why. The difference between a movie like The Informant! and its predecessor, however, is that it provides a much more complete portrait of the character in question, even if it doesn’t purport to be a concrete or definitive one. (Not to mention, in this case, it’s hard to imagine you would get one more accurate, even – or especially – if you got it from the actual guy it was based upon.)
In addition to documenting his real actions, screenwriter Scott Burns (The Bourne Ultimatum) provides a running commentary of non-sequitur observations in the form of voiceover by Whitacre himself – a stream of semi-consciousness that proves surprisingly informative about how and why Whitacre’s doing what he’s doing, even when he’s musing about polar bears or duty-free ties.
But Soderbergh’s movie isn’t merely a chronicle of one man’s manufactured truth, it’s a deconstruction of it, and further, an indictment of a system – economic, legal, and political – that endorses or rewards behavior that is expressly designed to be confusing. Notwithstanding the specific technical demands of Whitacre’s job, which involves feeding sugar to microbes to create lysine, he functions in a corporate hierarchy that doesn’t maintain clear designations of responsibility, much less straightforward communication. The very fact that Whitacre believes he will be promoted by the selfsame company whose business practices he’s blowing the whistle on speaks not only to the extent of his self-delusion, but the sense of superiority and entitlement that seems to be reflected in the surprise and outrage disgraced executives have demonstrated when their actions were condemned or punished.
What’s more remarkable is that rather than merely (if rightfully) being outraged by this behavior, Soderbergh documents it with comical incredulousness, not only not taking it seriously himself but suggesting the audience doesn’t either – which somehow seems far more damning despite the film’s collective light-heartedness. Composer Marvin Hamlisch, who similarly turned a high-stakes con into comic fun with his score for The Sting, alerts the audience to Soderbergh’s unexpectedly satirical tone, but it’s also in much of the casting that the director’s meta-commentary on the film’s true-life events (and their relevance to current ones) gains deeper resonance.
Specifically, Soderbergh casts comedians in many of the film’s key roles – especially attorneys, both for and against Whitacre; and while he doesn’t seem to be targeting any particular profession as a subject of derision, our familiarity as audience members with the day jobs of folks like Joel McHale (TV’s The Soup), Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Tompkins, and the Smothers Brothers among others exerts a reductive effect on the seriousness and substance of Whitacre’s legal battles. Even playing their roles straight and without comedic affectation, these performers highlight the ludicrousness of Whitacre’s efforts, and turn the escalating scandal into little more than a circus.
Ultimately, however, the film is only a comedy by a matter of degrees, both because the source material is stuff you couldn’t make up more effectively, and Matt Damon’s subtlety in the role of Whitacre is often as exasperating as it is entertaining. But as one of the few filmmakers in Hollywood who can still inject ideas (artistic or intellectual) into populist entertainment, leave it to Soderbergh to offer a case study in integrity by telling a story about the total lack of it. Truth be told, Soderbergh may have crafted only a minor work with The Informant! given the rest of the entries in his remarkably well-rounded filmography; but as a thoughtful alternative to Hollywood thrill rides or an unconventional crowd-pleaser in anticipation of artsy fare yet to come, it feels like the right kind of movie at the right time – for him, and especially for us.
Todd Gilchrist is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. He contributes regularly to AOL’s Cinematical blog as well as Sci Fi Wire. His reviews frequently appear on Rotten Tomatoes.
Read about the inner workings of the case that became The Informant in Circuit Court Judge James Epstein’s Chicago Tribune review, where he chronicles his experience being a lawyer representing the real-life Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon’s character) on the case 14 years ago.