Directed by Steven Soderbergh
The Informant! is a prime example of an unreliable narrator. I mean, that goes without saying. Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) lies about everything over the course of this story. He lies to the company for whom he works, ADM, he lies to the FBI, and by the end of the film we realize just how much he has lied to us, the viewer.
And we’re supposed to fall for it. We are intimate with Mark, privy to many of his thoughts (through narration), and yet by the end we see just how alien he is from us, having lied about so much that we have to take everything he says or even thinks with a grain of salt.
The story of The Informant! is a true one, or at least based in truth. The story is recounted in an episode of This American Life, and it’s worth a listen, even once you’ve seen the movie.
Between the FBI, the international conspiracy and suspected moles, there is a lot here to hook an audience in. One of the points of reference, which is acknowledged multiple times throughout the film, is Sydney Pollack’s The Firm (1993), a campy thriller with Tom Cruise based on a John Grisham novel. Using that movie as a lens into this one, we are given certain expectations and made to see the circumstances through Whitacre’s eyes. We anticipate that Whitacre is the everyman caught up in something sinister, and it is up to him to bring it all down. As the story trudges on, particularly once past the midpoint, the plot seems to wash away, and the story focuses on Whitacre, namely his extreme delusion.
Almost everything is a lie, although ADM’s price-fixing scandal is very real. Whitacre is a young executive working for the giant corporation which produces lysine, something found in so many foods that you’ve already ingested it today. In charge of the biochemical division, Whitacre finds himself under the gun as he isn’t making his quota, and though I forget the details of his day to day job, just know that he’s there to make money, and his division is losing money.
Panicked, Whitacre tells his boss that he received a threatening phone call from one of their competitors claiming to have a mole sabotaging ADM’s crop and demanding $10 million to cease the damage. The boss calls in the FBI, and only minutes into the movie it feels like we’re racing towards the end of Act 2.
That desperate, paranoid, lightning-quick pace comes from Whitacre, a man who already seems to be at his wit’s end, barely into the start of the story. When the FBI comes in, ready to tap Whitacre’s phone line, he gets nervous that they will uncover ADM’s price-fixing scheme, thus putting Whitacre in danger. So what does he do? Well he tells the FBI everything and soon finds himself recording meetings and conversations throughout the company.
It’s only later that the FBI and the audience learns that the initial revelation, of the competitor’s sabotage, was all fabricated by Whitacre in an attempt to cover his own ass. The initial fear that he might get caught (due to the FBI’s involvement) leads him to become one of the FBI’s most accomplished informants ever. He knows what kind of evidence they need, and he gets it.
The FBI is a bit stumped by his eager involvement, and part of that comes from Whitacre’s intense delusion. In narration he tells us that ADM will surely realize he’s the good guy, and once all the ‘bad guys’ are cleaned out, he will be made president of the company.
Later on, after a couple years of investigating, Whitacre reveals to the FBI that he has embezzled money from the company, his own sort of severance package, he says, for when the company comes under fire from the FBI investigation.
The embezzlement, beyond just being a crime, puts all of Whitacre’s testimony in jeopardy, and it turns him into the bad guy, having stolen from ADM, now something of a good guy.
Things unfold and fold back up in many ways with lightning speed as the movie comes to a close. There are multiple lawyers, lawsuits and even more lies. One of the final lies, we realize, is one Whitacre has repeated over and over again throughout the film, that he was adopted. Why did he lie? Who the hell knows.
The Informant! is a bit of a comedy, if only because it’s so ridiculous. It starts as a fairly well-made, conventional thriller and devolves rapidly as it dives into Whitacre’s psyche. It starts as The Wire and ends as the final season of Breaking Bad, with Whitacre unravelling like Walter White near the end.
In the episode “The Fix is In” from This American Life, covering this story, we’re told a little bit about who exactly is victimized by this price-fixing scheme. ADM and their competitors, all over the world, work together to raise prices of lysine in unison and earning themselves dozens of millions of dollars. Though your or me, the average consumer, likely wouldn’t notice any kind of impactful price change, many distributors and farmers, for example, who buy lysine in bulk (as far as I know) had their livelihood at stake when they couldn’t cover the increased prices. The point is that people were greatly affected, and it’s easy to miss that when you focus only on numbers and the people benefitting.
A similar type of large-scale theft took place in The Wolf of Wall Street and The Wizard of Lies. Like The Informant! these were stories based in reality, one about Jordan Belfort who made a fortune off of fraudulent penny stocks and the other about Bernie Madoff’s devastating pyramid scheme. Like this movie, The Wolf of Wall Street focuses almost entirely on Belfort, diving into the inner workings of his mind and disturbing worldview as much as the goings on of his business. The Wizard of Lies, on the other hand, makes a conscious effort to show the consequences of Madoff’s crimes. When people who trusted their money with Madoff found out they had lost everything, some of them committed suicide.
It’s a striking moment in a movie that could easily lose sight of the severity of the crime behind the almost unbelievable numbers. We hear millions and billions, and it’s easy to forget that someone is getting hurt in all of this.
The Informant! doesn’t pay any attention to the victims of the crime, probably because we are thrust so far into Whitacre’s warped point of view (in which he repeatedly insists he’s the good guy) that we are meant to be fooled by him, in effect one of the victims of his deceit.
To do that, to fool the audience, Steven Soderbergh builds up a series of expectations through recognizable tropes and concepts, making us believe we are watching a thriller. Then he pulls it all away and shows us that we’ve been watching a comedy this whole time.
And it is a comedy, right? This is serious stuff, and people were truly affected by it, but so much of this movie is genuinely funny. Whitacre’s eagerness to rat on his friends is made to be kind of silly, and I think Whitacre, as presented here, is such a wild character that he wouldn’t really fit in any other kind of movie, let alone one that claimed to recreate reality. Whitacre aspires to be in the kind of movie this one pretends to be over the course of the first forty minutes, but by the end it’s nearly a slapstick comedy, eventually reaching the point where nothing Whitacre says matters, and anything punches he tries to throw are absolutely feckless. He becomes a shell of a person, but only once everyone has caught onto him.
Before the movie starts, there is text onscreen telling us that though this is based on a true story, some of it is fabricated, as is usually the case in the movies. So there.
This seems unnecessary, but I think it sets up the subtle expectation that things won’t necessarily follow reality. Considering what I know about the story, though, it does seem quite close to what really happened. This warning might just help us lose track of what’s real, both within this story universe, in reality and in Whitacre’s own worldview. We’re not supposed to know what to believe but rather to get lost in Whitacre’s lies, just as he was and the people around him were.
The Informant! is a story about the informant, not about what he’s informing on. He’s an enigma, and the real investigation carried out throughout the film isn’t the ADM one but the one into Whitacre.
Up Next: Life Itself (2014), The Limey (1999), Hard Eight (1996)