Steven Soderbergh has been putting films in theaters for 20 years, starting with sex, lies and videotape at the Sundance Film Festival in 1989. He made Sundance the festival it is today, for better or for worse, and though rumors and quotes from those close to him suggests that Soderbergh still gets frustrated with the movie business to this day, the man continues to be prolific.
The Informant! is Soderbergh’s third film this year (counting Che: Part One and Part Two as a single movie, the other is The Girlfriend Experience) and his third shot digitally and, like his other releases in 2009, The Informant! is a character piece. Christoph Waltz’s performance as Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds is still the best performance of the year, but Matt Damon carries this film with his character work, even when he’s being helped along by straight-faced comedians.
The Informant! is based off a non-fiction book by Kurt Eichenwald, but the first frame of film, even before the studio credits is a disclaimer about the movie being based on fact, but altered for drama, “So there.”
Matt Damon put on the pounds to play Mark Whitacre, vice president of ADM, a company that processes corn and corn byproducts. The plot summary would have you believe: “The U.S. government decides to go after an agri-business giant with a price-fixing accusation, based on the evidence submitted by their star witness, vice president turned informant Mark Whitacre,” but that’s really just the setup for the crazy amount of lies create the narrative structure of the movie.
We are dropped into Whitacre’s head with voiceovers by Damon as we see him wind through the office or stare into space with a blank look on his face. He seems like a happy guy, and he’s genuinely enthusiastic about corn products. As the voiceovers continue throughout the film, they diverge from the visuals more and more, until the asides begin to shape the context of the scene they blast over, sometimes playing over dialogue that we don’t get to hear.
The result was that I felt I was on Whitacre’s side, privy to the information he was (or as much of it as I could understand as the first ten minutes of the flick are filled with a lot of corn-processing data and facts) and hearing his thoughts as he multitasked through his business and let his mind wander. Up until the FBI gets involved at a serious level, Damon plays Whitacre like a harmless innocent, just doing his job and looking out for his family. The blank look Damon keeps on his face when he’s not talking looks like it could erupt into a grin at any minute. Damon plays Whitacre with a touch of wonder, as if there is still something amazing about corn processing. Then, the shit storm starts.
There’s a virus attacking the production of lycene (it’s not important that you know what that is, a pre-screening cram session would be unnecessary), and Whitacre gets chewed out by his superiors. With his ass towards the fire, Whitacre reports to his bosses that their Japanese competitor might have a mole injecting the virus into the lycene-producing bacteria and for a few million dollars, the company will out their own man.
Against the wishes of Whitacre, the FBI gets involved, and that’s when the film opens itself to some comedy.
After he turns informant, Mark Whitacre reveals himself to be something of an idiot. Multiple times throughout the film, I was shaking my head as he let more company secrets escape or almost blew the case for the FBI. Soderbergh and Damon spent enough time during the first parts of the movie to get me on Whitacre’s side, so even when his deceptions and mistakes start to cause more damage than they are worth, I couldn’t help but feel for the picture Mark Whitacre had of himself: a family man who caught a lucky break and just wants to take care of his own people. He does pointless acts of charity, but also owns 8 cars. He turns informant for the FBI because every consumer in the world is getting ripped off “before they finish breakfast,” but also wants to build stables on the grounds of his home for his kids.
As the film winds up, we’re exposed to more of Mark Whitacre. As soon as the investigation into global price-fixing begins, the Soderbergh starts to peel away layers of the pleasant looking, harmless Mark Whitacre we spent 40 minutes watching. As a more accurate picture of the character develops, the film picks up, gets funny and Damon’s performance reveals itself as much more than it initially appeared.
This movie is funny the way I find the humor in the tiny sect of absolutely insane conservative Christians in this country. Both Mark Whitacre and the insane Christians (the kind that kill abortion doctors; far from the majority) do bad things but they think that because their intentions are good, things will work out in their favor. Call it repentance or “catching a break,” it’s blind idiocy to think that Hail Marys cancel out physical violence in any aspect or that taking down your own company will somehow make up for the very real crimes you’ve committed.
After the summer movie season had me out week after week watching things explode, be they aliens, space ships, nuclear reactors, a 1930s bank, transforming robots or Hitler, it was nice to take a trip into the darkness of the theater and see a well-constructed and performed character piece that made me laugh, sometimes uncomfortably.
With awards season just around the corner, it’s time to plug our brains back in for 4th quarter cinema.