The Informant!

The Informant!

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Given their track record over the years, you might find it hard to raise much sympathy for the FBI. But, as Soderbergh’s sparky, intriguing comedy-thriller makes clear, they often have to deal with some very troublesome varieties of mole.

Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) was the highest-ranking whistleblower in US corporate history. A scientific whizz-kid who rose to a senior position with the agri-industry giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), he seemed a classic American success story – especially given his traumatic early life.

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But from his first appearance, lecturing his young son about the ubiquity of corn syrup as he drives into work and musing at random on every subject under the sun as his ordinary day unfolds, it becomes clear that he doesn’t quite fit the classic Hollywood templates of underdog hero (as in Soderbergh’s own Erin Brockovich) or sharp-suited villain suddenly discovering a conscience (as in Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton to name one of several).

Whitacre sees himself as a scientist, a geek resented by his colleagues for telling them unpalatable truths and refusing to play the corporate game. When a minor case of industrial espionage comes to light, ADM brings in the FBI – and Whitacre takes his handler, Agent Shephard (Scott Bakula) to one side and drops his bombshell.

For years, he’s been involved in a global conspiracy to fix the price of lysine, a common food additive – as he puts it: "Every time you have breakfast, these guys rob you." The sums involved are astronomical, the people involved pillars of the worldwide business community. Whitacre is appalled, and wants the truth to come out. Shephard senses the potential for a major sting operation and he and his partner Agent Herndon (Joel McHale) decide to put Whitacre to work.

He sets about the task with childlike glee, earnestly relaying his every move to the agents on his hidden tape recorder and describing himself as "0014 – because I’m twice as smart as 007". But, as the operation proceeds, Whitacre’s eccentricities become increasingly trying to the agents. And worse is to come. When ADM gets wind of the investigation, they hit back – and it transpires that the FBI’s white knight has elevated being economical with the truth into an art form.

To say more would be to give away the multiple twists and turns which ensue. Suffice to say, Soderbergh has great fun playing with the conventions of the conspiracy thriller – here is a world in which high-tech gadgetry often breaks down, fat guys plonk themselves right in front of the hidden camera and the least trustworthy person turns out to be the ‘hero’.

The idea that whistleblowers often have their own agenda, and become seduced by the glamour of their role, has been explored before (notably in Michael Mann’s The Insider) but Whitacre is portrayed as a class apart – utterly convinced of his own rectitude even as his world falls apart around him and utterly unable to realise he’s sabotaging his own crusade.

Damon does a superb job here – much of the pre-release publicity has been of the ‘Bourne gets fat!’ variety, dwelling on his bulking up and putting on a pair of glasses as though no actor had ever tried to look different for a particular role before. But his performance is much more than the externals. In his increasingly aggrieved, defensive exchanges with his handlers and his voiceover digressions on everything from airmiles to polar bears' noses, he paints a vivid, poignant picture of a self-righteous and paranoid man but also a loving husband and father, a mixture of high intelligence and childish naivety, egoism and altruism.

It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for him as all his lies are exposed, but equally hard not to share the FBI’s exasperation as their prize witness’s foibles threaten to flush a high-profile case down the toilet.

There is undoubtedly an element of contrasting Damon’s character here with his most famous onscreen incarnation – whereas Bourne is at home in his environment and in control of everything, Whitacre is out of place as both executive and spy, gradually losing control.

But Damon has always had depth as an actor and the slightly nerdy, boyish air he’s exhibited elsewhere (notably in Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven) is ideal for a character who’s never quite fitted in and had made up for it by constructing a more exciting version of his own life – even when that leads him to not so much press the self-destruct button as lean on it while shouting: “Look everyone! I’m pressing the self-destruct button!”

He’s well supported by Bakula (whose air of hangdog stoicism has rarely been better exploited) and McHale as the agents, investing what could have been stock characters with humanity – their attempts to fight Whitacre’s corner as the evidence to the contrary piles up shows a sincere, and very human, need to believe that good guys can be just that. And Lynskey gives a touching portrayal of long-suffering loyalty.

Soderbergh (perhaps relishing a somewhat lighter task after the Che marathon) effortlessly conjures up the closed, claustrophobic world of international business – a procession of interchangeable offices and hotel suites as artificial as the products ADM sells – ironically juxtaposing a series of Sixties-inspired titles on all the anonymous locations and setting the action to a jaunty Mancini-inspired score by Marvin Hamlisch.

There is an element of the spy caper to it all, which doesn’t always sit easily with the genuine human drama at the story’s core. And a truly great film would have made more of the fact that the audience (like the US intelligence and legal communities) ends up paying more attention to the foibles of one man than the scandal he was trying to expose.

But for the most part this is superior stuff – an engaging, intelligent and very funny film that proves even cinematic narrators aren’t always trustworthy, and that the cleverest people can often do the stupidest things.

Reviewed on: 14 Oct 2009
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The Informant! packshot
A high-ranking executive contacts the FBI with details of price-fixing in the food industry. But their investigation reveals more than they bargained for.
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Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Scott Z Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald

Starring: Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Melanie Lynskey, Joel McHale

Year: 2009

Runtime: 109 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

London 2009

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