A singularly unqualified corporate spy helps the FBI uncover a giant corporate price-fixing scam.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, and Melanie Lynskey
Review by Jon Kissel
Mark is involved in many schemes over the course of the film, as someone in the midst of a long manic episode might find themselves in. The Informant treats the deeply troubled but high functioning Mark as a snake oil salesman with a wagon full of nonsense cures, but one of those cloudy bottles actually does what it says. I had seen this movie many years ago, and I wasn’t sure if the price-fixing was real or something that Mark instigated in the momentum of his many lies. It was indeed real, but the uncovering of it doesn’t emerge from any goodness or guilt on Mark’s part, but as a result of a lie that goes too far and puts him in contact with the FBI, at which point his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey) insists he come clean. In his collaboration with the government, Mark builds an open-and-shut case against ADM, but due to his overconfidence and his untrustworthiness, he’s the single worst person to make the case and therefore the perfect person to lead a corporate heist comedy.
What makes The Informant notable and not some version of a Grisham adaptation is the aforementioned inner monologue that runs randomly through Mark’s head. It drowns out conversations between characters, but only for the viewer. Mark is listening carefully while he’s thinking about whatever he’s thinking about, ready with his next retort or deflection when the focus turns to him. It’s an extra facet to a character that’s already a supremely unreliable narrator, and a facet that pays off when he’s finally caught in a lie by Ginger and his FBI handler Agent Shepard (Scott Bakula) at the end of the film. The digressions were mental displays of confidence, such that Mark believed he had control over a situation and could think about some animal, but when he’s finally busted, his internal voice has to coach his external one in a futile attempt to keep his lying head above water.
It’s after this scene that we get the depressingly familiar sentencing of an upper class white male, where the judge compliments the defendant on his education and his upbringing and expresses disbelief that he’s there in the first place. While Mark Whitacre doesn’t get the leniency of a Brock Turner or a Paul Manafort, this accentuates a level of entitlement that’s running under The Informant’s surface. It never occurs to Mark that he is burning his bridges at ADM by turning state’s witness, because he believes himself to be untouchable. He has all the trappings of a CEO, what with the cars and the horses and the education and the connections. Why wouldn’t the board bestow this upon him? There’s also a steady stream of American iconography in the background, from Mark’s bust of Lincoln to the framed posters of a bald eagles. The setting of corn-covered Illinois, and the golden-hour color scheme evokes a Norman Rockwell painting, except this happy family sitting down to breakfast is being gouged by multinational corporate behemoths. America is the gold standard for desperately wanting to believe that things are actually simple, that the dramatic crime is more compelling than the boring crime, and The Informant feels like it could only have happened here.
This weakness extends to Shepard and the FBI, few of whom stop to consider any but the best possible interpretation of Mark’s motivations. Damon is a good actor portraying a character who is a bad actor, but the bad acting isn’t so bad that a lot of people who should know better fall for it. There are some excellent reaction shots in The Informant as agents or lawyers are confronted with a wrinkle of Mark’s story that they’ve previously been blind to. Even when Shepard is asked by a prosecutor to consider why Mark is helping them, he can only fall back on the simple nobility of a good man who surely has no ulterior motives.
I do think The Informant is being sneaky in foregrounding Mark’s crimes and backgrounding ADM’s, because it clearly thinks that the discrepancy in jail time is unjust and even gives an imprisoned Mark a tiny victory in the closing scene. This trickery makes for a fun thought experiment, but it also makes the film more difficult to grapple with, and the brain likes simplicity. Being blatantly lied to is just a more personal crime than a food item costing a nickel more than it otherwise might. The end result of ADM’s backroom chicanery is serious, but it’s serious in the way that insider trading is serious: it damages the stability of a giant system more than it damages any one person, and therefore makes the impact hard to visualize. Mark is lying to the viewer as well as other characters, and it makes him so unlikable, but then shifting focus from ADM to Mark is not only ADM’s legal strategy but the film’s as well. The Informant provides a stranger-than-fiction picture of a series of white-collar crimes, but it finds so little pathos or emotion in the story that it’s essentially a journalistic accounting told very well. It accomplishes its trick, but leaves the viewer empty, and is thus the difference between admiring a movie and loving it. B