The Case of the Telltale Businessman: “The Informant!” – 3 popcorns

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by Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Director Steven Soderbergh’s “The Informant!,” touted as a very near to true account of how whistleblower Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) helped the FBI uncover corruption at food giant Archer Daniels Midland, points out one overwhelming fact: There is no lack of muck to be raked in America. What’s worse, more than simple greed is to blame.

Rather, it’s a complicated confluence of factors that pundits and philosophers have agonized over since time immemorial, played out here via a cast of businessmen villains and inscrutable heroes. And just to furrow our brows a bit more, few of the players are who they think they are. Nary a character doesn’t see himself as the guy in the white hat.

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Especially Mr. Whitacre. Forgetting for a moment that he was complicit in international price fixing prior to coming forward, the Cornell-educated biochemist maintains the corporate culture was foisted on him. But indeed, unlike most of the film’s dramatis personae, there’s more afoot here than the human talent for rationalizing bad behavior.

Kudos goes to Matt Damon. Without venturing a personality diagnosis that might give too much away, suffice it to note his portrayal of Whitacre virtually embodies the moral conundrum under dissection. He has us coming and going, the curiousness of his nature synergizing with the tattletale into a helical plot that spins one really daffy saga.

It is Shakespearean in that there are no simple answers…only educated inquiries. In a front row seat at the yin and yang of commerce, we are bemused and abashed in one fell swoop…made to feel small by the sheer might of those evil forces that be, and yet offered hope of empowerment by Soderbergh’s astute flexing of the First Amendment.

Based on the book by investigative journalist Kurt Eichenwald and adapted for the screen by Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”), it is completely dizzying. Damon as Whitacre ups the ante with a first person narration that boggles the mind. And then again, aside from its cutting edge wackiness, the flow-of-conscious ramblings add great realism.

Still, trying to grasp what made the snitch go to the FBI in the first place is the stuff that makes for lively post-movie discussion around the coffee table. Things are even more convoluted than they appear at first blush. There’s a secret about our boy that you can’t know just now. However, we can attribute a portion of his decision to good old antipathy.

While he claims altruism and is certain that the board of directors at Archer Daniels Midland will ultimately thank him for cleaning house, he dislikes his bosses and their ilk. He iterates that he is different…a scientist. And so his disdain for the blue flannel suits might be a way to absolve himself from having profitably played at their reindeer games.

Though occasionally jagged and resultantly off-putting in parts, the mulling self-analysis and streaming autobiography Whitacre confides whilst embarking on what he sees as the 007 part of his life supplies a captivating tone to the dark comedy. While never quite sure whether to sympathize with the protagonist, at moments we can’t help but be touched.

But regardless of whether he is in earnest, deluding himself or trying to convince us of his rightful place in the family of man, his divulgences cause us pause. Fact is, a farmer can’t plant a seed without the middlemen food corporations knowing about it. Which brings us to the essential amino acid lysine and those who would conspire to fix its price.

The FBI, while zealous to make a case out of Mark’s cooperation, really doesn’t know how to figure him. Hauling down 350K a year in the mid 1990s, driving a different one of his exotic luxury cars each day, he is a mass of contradictions. The kicker is, there is endless inconsistency in his contradiction. But if he’s crazy, we suspect it’s like a fox.

One day he no longer wishes to play ball, but then he does. The telltale journey plays like a sleepwalk punctuated with night terrors. He alternates from paranoid to romantic. E.g.—Though his dealings with Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) are mostly troubled, in one instance he fantasizes how maybe some day the two will go fishing.

Adding to the film’s hauntingly nutty disposition is the realization that countless firms regularly conspire to sully the spirit of free enterprise by rigging the game and literally stealing the bread from our mouths. There is capitalism and there is outright cheating. Managing an odd sense of humor about it, “The Informant!” spills the beans on the latter.

“The Informant!,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Matt Damon, Scott Bakula and Melanie Lynskey. Running time: 108 minutes


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