Directed by Stephen Soderbergh
In 1995, Mark Whitacre shocked the world when he became the highest-ranked executive to turn whistleblower in US history. For three years, Whitacre worked with the FBI, covertly taping conversations with his employers and competitors to gather evidence of an international price fixing scheme in the agribusiness sector, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. What wasn’t immediately known, however, was that Whitacre had also been helping himself to kickbacks to the tune of anywhere from 9.5 to 11.5 million dollars. Also, he was in the middle of a serious bipolar meltdown.
Based on the 2000 book by Kurt Eichenwald, Stephen Soderbergh’s film takes an unlikely comedic approach to telling the story of Whitacre, played by a hilariously manic Matt Damon. Although ripe with corporate intrigue and personal drama, Soderbergh keeps things absurdist and light. The film is narrated in voice-over by Damon, but his commentary is actually just a series of non sequiturs and observations that often have nothing to do with the plot itself. They do, however, illustrate the mind of a man who isn’t really following along with the rest of us.
Whitacre’s medical condition is introduced rather late in the proceedings, leaving the audience to wonder for most of the film why Whitacre behaves the way he does. Despite seeming to understand what is at stake and constant coaching from FBI agents Brian Shepard (an especially well cast Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), Whitacre lies, discloses information and narrates his own surveillance tapes, coming across as a complete buffoon. When we do find out about Whitacre’s condition, Soderbergh’s use of comedy almost seems cruel, since Whitacre wasn’t in on the joke. However, Soderbergh’s approach also puts the focus on the FBI’s complicity in what happened because despite Whitacre’s increasingly erratic behaviour, they continue to push him to get more evidence, forcing him to go undercover much longer than most trained FBI agents would have to.
Despite a strong start and a host of good performances, Damon in particular, the film looses comedic steam about halfway through, and never really gets it back. The two hour running time seems necessary to tell a story this convoluted and unbelievable, but the light tone introduced at the beginning of the film actually works against it past the halfway point. To be sure, Soderbergh’s acerbic comedy is an acquired taste, but Damon really shines in what is actually a very difficult and nuanced role. He is aided by a host of strong supporting performances including the aforementioned Bakula and McHale as well as the always strong Melanie Linskey as Whitacre’s perpetually supportive wife, Ginger.
Which isn’t to say that “The Informant!” is a failure. As far as thought provoking, adult comedy goes, it’s still more successful than most and definitely worth a look.