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Note: This post contains spoilers.
If you are contemplating going in to see The Informant!, it is more than likely you already know that the movie is based on true events that transpired at ADM (Archer Daniels Midland Company), an agribusiness conglomerate, early in the previous decade. At the end of years of investigations, principals at the company were convicted and they spent time in jail for price-fixing. The man that made the FBI’s case for them, a Vice-President at the company named Mark Whitacre, is the subject of this film.
Now, if visions of movies dealing with corporate espionage or corporate wrong-doing (such as The Insider or Michael Clayton) are swimming in your head, you would do well to banish those thoughts. That The Informant! deals with similar topics is all there is in common. While the seriousness of the subject matter and the thrill of watching a good guy taking down the big, bad companies came through brilliantly in those other movies, you get no such sense with The Informant!. Right from the get-go, in fact right from the first frame in which the disclaimer flashes across the screen (to paraphrase: “The movie is based on true events, but some of the characters are composites. So there.”), it occurs to you that what you are in for is, rather, a tongue-in-cheek handling of the issue.
Mark Whitacre’s personality and his antics – perhaps – lend themselves to such treatment. We are privy to his thoughts as he goes about his daily life – funny thoughts, profound thoughts, thought-provoking thoughts. We feel like we know the guy. We peg him as sincere and hard-working, as wanting to do the right thing, and as the movie progresses, as somewhat of a bumbling idiot.
Little do we know.
Turns out the man whose voice we hear, whose eyes through which we view the world, whose family we get to know, whose success – in exposing the illegal goings-on at one of the largest companies in the world – we are rooting for, is not who we think he is at all. We find out, some time into the movie, that he has bi-polar disorder – a disease that compels him to lie compulsively and allows him to entertain visions of a grand ending to his exposing the unlawful activities at ADM. He actually believes that the company will reward him by coronating him as head of ADM when all the wrong-doers end up in jail.
This is where the movie stumbles. We feel gypped. He now has our pity, our sympathy, for sure, but he no longer has our trust. Our loyalties are transferred to the FBI agents who have the monumental task of not only building a case, but also making sure their star witness does not end up jeopardizing it. It comes close more than once. By the time the FBI’s focus shifts from the bad guys at ADM to Whitacre’s own wrong-doings (embezzlement of the company’s funds), the enormity of Whitacre’s greed is mind-bogglingly obvious. His disease, the judge decrees, has no bearing on his greed.
Matt Damon, the actor with the star power in the movie, is brilliant as the slightly paunchy work horse with secret ambitions. With 30 pounds of extra weight on his usually athletic frame, large framed glasses and droopy moustache, his transformation from the international spy of the Bourne series to a ‘bio-technician’ in a farm products company is complete. Scott Bakula’s turn as the slightly nervous FBI agent, Shepard, deserves recognition as well.
That this story is true at all is the most eye-popping aspect of the film. The conspiracy at ADM starts unraveling and the FBI becomes aware of it because the executives at ADM brought it upon themselves through a series of what can only be viewed as missteps (knowing full well that they are violating the law by price-fixing, they bring in the FBI to investigate the far lesser matter and things start going downhill from then on). These were the people that were running such a large company?
If there is one heartwarming angle in the story, it’s the FBI agents’ devotion and loyalty to Whitacre and his vital role in framing the case against ADM. They try to protect him not only from ADM, but from the FBI and from himself. One of them, agent Herndon, appears to stick with him through his years in prison, the final scene leading us to assume that he was even assisting Whitacre in putting together his plea for a Presidential pardon.
Sure some of the scenes in the movie are hilarious, but in the face of all the bits of information we are fed as the events transpire, you’re left laughing less and shaking your head more. Discomfort replaces mirth; pity for Whitacre’s condition replaces disbelief. You’re not at the edge of your seat, you’re cringing.
There are countless stories that lend themselves to hilarity and light treatment. I’m not sure this story was one of those.
The movie is rated ‘R’ in the US for language.