Informant!, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/18/09 00:00:00
It is a well-known bit of Hollywood lore that when Stanley Kubrick began planning the film that would eventually become the comedy classic “Dr. Strangelove,” he has originally planned to tell the story of a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia in the same straightforward manner in which author Peter George utilized in “Red Alert,” the book that it was being based on. Before long, however, it apparently dawned on him that the story that he wanted to convey was so strange, twisted and bizarre that a more comedic approach might suit the material better. (Of course, the fact that “Fail-Safe,” a film that told essentially the same story from a decidedly straightforward perspective might have helped shape that decision as well.) I have no idea if Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns specifically had “Dr. Strangelove” in mind when they sat down to adapt “The Informant,” Kurt Eichenwald’s best-selling account of a real-life executive who helped expose the widespread secret corruption surrounding one of America’s biggest corporations while maintaining some secrets of his own, but it certainly seems as if they did. On its own, the actual story is one of those tales that even those with zero interest in corporate malfeasance would find utterly fascinating and if it had been adapted in a straightforward manner, it probably would have made into an engrossing whistle-blower drama along the lines of such fictional thrillers as “The Firm” or such real-life tales as “The Insider” or Soderbergh’s own “Erin Brockovich.” However, the genuine twists and turns that the story took along the way were so bizarre and outrageous that they must have come to the similar conclusion that this was a story best told from a more comedic perspective that allowed them to simultaneously recount the events chronicled in Eichenwald’s book in a fairly accurate manner and subtly subvert the conventions of the genre as seen in things like “The Firm,” “The Insider” and yes, even Soderbergh’s own “Erin Brockovich.” As it turns out, they made the right call because while “The Informant” might have been excellent as a topical drama, “The Informant!” (note the exclamation point) is a one-of-kind wonder that is not only the nerviest and most audacious thing that Soderbergh has done on this scale since the wildly underrated “Ocean’s 12,” it is perhaps the most compulsively entertaining film of any type that he has done in a while.The film stars Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, a biochemist-turned-VP for the massive agribusiness conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland (even if you don’t know the name, it is likely that you have utilized dozens of products featuring their fingerprints on a daily basis without even realizing it) who is their go-to guy regarding the food additive lysine, a project so important that they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into a lysine-production plant at their Decatur, IL headquarters that, as the story opens in 1992, isn’t actually producing any lysine. One day, Mark bursts into the office of one of his superiors with a fantastic and troubling tale--it seems that he was contacted by someone from a rival Japanese company and informed that they had a mole in ADM who was deliberately sabotaging the lysine production by injecting a virus and that both a cure and the name of the mole would be made available for the modest fee of ten million dollars. Although his superiors initially ask him to stay in contact with the Japanese guy in the hopes of knocking down the price, they soon decide to instead call in the FBI to investigate. This freaks Mark out for a while--he was under the impression that they would simply pay the guy off and let everything move on--but he eventually agrees to talk with agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and even allows him to put a tap on a business phone line that he maintains at his house. Later on, however, Mark drops an unexpected bombshell on Shepard--he tells the agent that ADM is involved with a massive international lysine price-fixing scheme, that he wants to help bring them to justice and that he is even willing to wear a wire to
This is big news for the Feds--as Shepard puts it to his superiors, “Most people are a victim of corporate crime before they finish breakfast”--and before long, Mark is giddily wearing a wire to work, both at home and in meeting abroad with other lysine producers, to help them get enough evidence for them to build a solid case. There are some hiccups at first--Mark’s newly-tapped enthusiasm for covert activity leads to some awkward moments (he tends to provide a running commentary during his recording sessions that mirrors the stream-of-consciousness narration that he provides for those of us in the audience and at one point, he can’t help but blatantly stare into a hidden camera at a key meeting) and the people that he is taping aren’t the type to speak out about their nefarious actions in the kind of detail that would definitively prove what they are up to--but his recordings eventually allow the Feds to begin building a case against ADM. As time goes by, however, some of Mark’s stories begin to fall apart or change entirely--he claims that the price-fixing has stopped and that there never was any mole in the first place--and his behavior grows more and more erratic; he is convinced that the heads of ADM will be so impressed with his actions that they will ask him to run the company after everything goes down and when the government finally has enough information to stage a raid on corporate headquarters, it turns out that Mark tipped several co-workers off ahead on time. For a while, Mark is able to talk himself out of these snags but once the case finally becomes public, an astonishing series of revelations begin to unfold that could have serious repercussions against Mark and the government’s case against ADM.
Reading over the description that I have just laid out above (and I have necessarily left a lot of it out in order to preserve the surprises), I suspect that many of you may be wondering to yourselves a.) how such a story could possibly hope to make sense to anyone who doesn’t obsessively read the “Wall Street Journal” every single day and b.) how such a tale could possibly come across as funny. Regarding the coherence of the story, Burns has done a fairly brilliant job of taking Eichenwald’s densely detailed reportage and streamlining it in such a way that it retains its complexity without ever getting bogged down in minutiae and if there is the occasional bit of confusion about what is supposed to be going on, it actually works in the sense that it puts viewers in the shoes of the federal agents who are always trying to figure out just that for themselves every time they are confronted with Mark’s latest tale of intrigue. He does such a good job of bringing the story to the screen that even though I had already read the book and knew the twists and turns that were in store, I still found myself completely sucked into the narrative once again. (Actually, this is the kind of movie that might be interesting to see a second time in order to see how it plays while knowing exactly where it is heading.) The only real flaw in the adaptation is in the handling of Mark’s wife (Melanie Lynskey)--we can never be sure at any given point how much she really knows about what is going on and instead of dealing with the questions that her presence raises, the film just never gets around to fully dealing with her in a significant way.
For his part, Soderbergh helps keep the story moving forward by resisting the urge to glamorize the material in ways that might distract viewers from what is going on and going for a more realistic approach in which every bland detail from the anonymous hotels and conference rooms that the characters stay and work in to the equally unmemorable clothes that they wear give. Not only does this approach give the proceedings an extra level of authenticity, it provides the perfect foundation for the unexpected humor of the piece to emerge. Although there are a few overt suggestions that Soderbergh is going for laughs here--including the exclamation point in the title and a goofy score from Marvin Hamlisch that is either one of the year’s best or worst, depending on your perspective--most of the humor gradually emerges from the increasingly wild series of events that play out before our eyes and the increasingly futile attempts by the characters to keep on top of them. Wisely, Soderbergh doesn’t play the material strictly for laughs and as a result, his deadpan take makes the material even funnier than if he had. Take the scene in the Chinese restaurant in which Mark meets with the agents that he has been working with for a couple of years and begins to ask a series of “hypothetical” questions that turn out to be anything but--this is taken pretty much verbatim from the book, where it was presented as serious, but it is done here in such a delightfully dry manner that it becomes one of the funniest moments in the entire film.
Another key aspect to the success of “The Informant!” is the spot-on casting in all of the major roles. Considering the number of huge stars who have eagerly signed on to work with Soderbergh in the last few years, I imagine that Warner Brothers was probably less than excited to discover that the roles in this particular project were for the most part filled with journeymen actors such as Scott Bakula, playing-it-straight comedians like Joel McHale and The Smothers Brothers (Tom is one of the heads of ADM and Dick plays a judge in a climactic courtroom scene) and a movie star hidden under a dorky hairstyle, dorkier glasses and an extra 30 pounds. And yet, while the cast list may not, for the most part, feature the kind of A-list names that one might expect, the people that Soderbergh has chosen are all pretty much perfect in their parts. Bakula’s square, nice-guy persona is an ideal fit for his role as an essentially decent and by-the-book guy who is always willing to go to bat for his increasingly flaky informant even when common sense would suggest that he do otherwise. The use of comic performers is equally inspired because even though they are not necessarily doing anything that could be described as “funny,” their crack comic timing lends an unexpectedly amusing edge to their ostensibly serious material. As for Damon, I have to admit that when I first heard that he was cast in the role of Mark Whitacre, I couldn’t quite see how it could possibly work--as good of an actor as he is, he just seemed to me to be a little too young to be fully convincing as a high-placed executive in one of America’s most powerful companies. As it turns out, he is an absolutely inspired choice for the part--in the way that he seems to be juggling several different lives all at once, his work here could be seen as a white collar riff on Jason Bourne--and the amazing comic high-wire act that he gives us may just be the most inspired performance of his entire career. Take the scene towards the end in which Mark and Shepard have their final meeting in which everything (well, almost everything) is finally revealed--there are any number of ways in which an actor could have handled that particular moment and while I don’t want to say what happens, I want to point out that Damon’s approach is so quietly perfect that it is a little master class in the art of acting all by itself.“The Informant!” is a great film, one of the best of 2009, and it is yet another triumph for the seemingly inexhaustible Steven Soderbergh. Over the last few years, he has been cranking out movies at an astonishing rate (in a little over a year, for example, he made this, the ambitious two-part epic “Che” and the quirky indie offering “The Girlfriend Experience”) and while that is impressive enough on the surface, the fact that the resulting films have been both incredibly eclectic in terms of subject and scope and brilliantly made to boot is a cause for celebration. Like very few filmmakers, he If there is any lingering doubt that he belongs in the pantheon of great filmmakers, they should be finally erased by this captivating work that is as compulsively entertaining as any of his big-ticket efforts and as slyly subversive as his smaller and quirkier efforts. Honest!
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