CAPSULE: This is the mostly true story about the rising executive at ADM who turned whistle-blower for the FBI and for a few years was the best corporate inside informant that the FBI had ever had. But in the shady world of industrial espionage the truth becomes highly processed before it reaches anyone's ears. This is a complex tale that had been done well on Public Radio, but in Steven Soderbergh's hands and with some very strange stylistic choices the story becomes muddled and more confusing than necessary. Soderbergh adapts Scott Z. Burns's screenplay based on Kurt Eichenwald's book. Rating +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
In 2000 the Chicago Public Radio program "This American Life" ran a story about Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) executive Mark Whitacre and his experiences having turned informant for the FBI. That same month Kurt Eichenwald published a book on the same story. A screenwriter, presumably Scott Z. Burns, heard the program and saw the cinematic possibilities of the story. The result is THE INFORMANT!, with Matt Damon in the title role of Mark Whitacre.
ADM is a giant conglomerate that makes additives and raw materials for grain-based food. Whitacre was an important executive in the BioProducts Division who claimed to the FBI that a spy in the corporation was sabotaging their lysine production. He said that a Japanese contact had told him that he could have the name of the spy for $10 million. Working with the FBI, Whitacre also offered them information that his own company was conspiring to price-fix. This became a long, complex, and frequently humorous, relationship between Whitmore and FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula). At first Whitacre is incredibly cooperative and provides superb evidence of the price fix. But with time the value of Whitacre's character and his evidence comes into question.
Having enjoyed the radio broadcast of the story, I expected to enjoy just as much the film version. Soderbergh surprisingly muddles the story, both in the writing and in his choices for the visual style. The dialog comes fast and the storyline is frequently hard to follow with cues from the musical score to indicate what just happened was really whacky. This is a current film and it covers events of the 1990s, but it has cameo roles for 1960s comics Tom and Dick Smothers. So far that is fine. But the font for the frequent labels is of the style that would have been used on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It is sort of a psychedelic flower-petal font. And the music frequently is reminiscent of the Smothers Brothers' style. All this completely evokes the wrong era. The entire film looks dulled-out as if it had been filmed in 16mm and blown up to a larger format. Backgrounds frequently have all detail washed out in bright light. The image quality is substandard. A message at the beginning of the film that tells us that some of what is in the film cannot be taken literally ends with "So there!" That appears to be a joke borrowed from AIRPLANE!. The settings jump from country to country, not unlike films from Matt Damon's Bourne franchise, but the scenes have absolutely no feel that they really are from those countries.
On the other hand Matt Damon looks very believable as an unglamorous Every-man. This ability to not look magnetic is not easy for an actor so familiar. The ability to look non-descript served him well in THE GOOD SHEPHERD and serves him well again. Toward the end he even loses his hair to (a Ron Howard sort of) male pattern baldness. I am not always fond of Damon's acting, but I liked him here. Additional acting surprises, beyond the presence of the Smothers Brothers, are a very straight role for Clancy Brown, best known perhaps as the sadistic guard in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. Here he is in a role that did not require his stature, but in which he is surprisingly believable. Whitacre's philosophical musings in the narration are a definite plus.
The choice of the story is quite good, but the radio version (a link is provided below) is probably a bit preferable. I rate this film a straight +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10. It is a new group running ADM these days, but I wonder how they are taking this negative publicity.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt1130080/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1200661-informant/
This American Life version: http://www.thislife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=168
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper