Review: Reassessing 'The Informant!'
I’m always disappointed when the film doesn’t match its advertisements, no matter how good the film or important its message. So I have to admit I was a little disappointed with The Informant! because I was expecting a comedy, but got something quite a bit darker.
Had I expected instead to see a smart, suspenseful drama going in, I’m certain I would have enjoyed the experience more. I’m hoping this review will help reset your own expectations, because you really should see this movie.
There are funny moments, to be sure, but, despite some valiant attempts to lighten the mood through quirky music (from Marvin Hamlisch of A Chorus Line) and sometimes amusing and informative voiceovers in inappropriate moments, ultimately what happens is distinctly unfunny.
The film tells of the rise and fall of biotechnologist cum mid-level manager Mark Whitacre, who, through a series of events, becomes an informant for the FBI against his employer, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), one of the world’s largest agricultural processors.
Whitacre seeks to expose a global price fixing scheme by high-level managers at ADM. But he exposes more than he planned, and that’s where the complications, and to some degree the fun, come in.
Whitacre, played by the multifaceted Matt Damon, is a complex individual, torn between his twin desires of greed for personal gain and a desire to make the world around him a better place. He lies when telling the truth would help him more, and when he does tell the truth, it’s at all the wrong times to all the wrong people.
You shake your head wondering if Whitacre is naïve or mad, but as the film progresses you realize there are several answers to that question as the boundaries between the lies and the reality of what happened begin to dissolve.
The film’s strengths are in the truths it shares. The point is driven home again and again, that, while it’s easy to go after one person for their easily provable personal crimes, even large personal crimes pale in comparison to the corporate conspiracies that hurt millions of people across the globe.
Joel Kline, Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, noted on a PBS “Newshour” segment devoted to the lawsuit that ensued from Whitacre’s actions, “Archer Daniels Midland illegally overcharged its customers millions and millions of dollars by entering agreements with competitors designed to inflate prices. In essence, greed, simple greed, replaced any sense of corporate decency or integrity. This is shameful behavior that goes to the very essence of a competitive, open free market.”
What the film doesn’t tell you is how widespread such crimes were at the time. In 1999 alone, Kline noted that the Justice Department raised more than $900 million in criminal fines from companies engaged in cartel schemes involving price fixing and guaranteed market slices. Kline’s statement (as prepared for delivery) on May 20, 1999, included this strong warning:
“Let me be clear about this: contrary to what some have suggested, these kinds of cartels are by no means transient or unstable. They are powerful and sophisticated and, without intervention by antitrust authorities, will often go on indefinitely. …
“With the imposition of the fines and prison sentence in these cases, we are hopeful that multinational companies who currently are engaged in cartel activity or who are faced with the opportunity to do so in the future will assess their risks differently and will think twice before ripping off America's consumers and businesses.”
The film is ably directed by Steven Soderbergh, whose previous work in a similar vein includes Erin Brockovich, Syriana, Good Night and Good Luck, and Michael Clayton. (Soderbergh also directed the Oceans Eleven, Oceans Twelve, and Oceans Thirteen films starring George Clooney, who was one of the producers of The Informant!)
The film’s core weakness, however, can’t be fixed by either the director or the nearly-on-screen-every-minute actor Damon. The problem is simply that the protagonist, whom we come to know better and better as the film progresses, becomes less and less likable. By the end, I was happy to leave that character behind.
If you are looking for a light piece of entertainment, this isn’t it. But if you’re ready to see personal and corporate crimes exposed via a suspenseful, depressing, and sometimes comical real-life story, then by all means, plunk some money down to support The Informant!
One of the reasons I went was simply to pay these filmmakers to make more films in this vein.
This isn’t as entertaining or as good a film as Michael Clayton or Erin Brokovich, but I definitely wasn’t bored, and after I left the theater, I couldn’t wait to get home and look up the real life story’s details. To me, that’s time and money well spent. Maybe for you, too.
Lisa Pease is a historian and writer who specializes in the mysteries of the John F. Kennedy era. She's also a movie buff.
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