The Informant! | Soderbergh Examines Flawed ADM Whistle-blower

Matt Damon plays slightly nuts whistle-blower Mark Whitacre in The Informant! (© 2009 Warner Bros Pictures)

Mark Whitacre is not your average corporate whistle-blower. Portrayed in caricature in The Informant by a round Matt Damon sporting a hairpiece and some extra pounds, the real-life Whitacre is a bright, ambitious, but screwy Ph.D. who worked his way up the biochemical food chain at ADM. ADM, by the way, is Archer Daniels Midland, the agri-business giant who made additives such as high-fructose corn syrup the foundation of the American diet. When you drink Coke, think of ADM. 

The film opens in 1990s Decatur, Illinois, where Whitacre’s lysine division is suffering unexplained production slowdowns. (Lysine, by the way, is a dextrose culture used to fatten industrially raised livestock. When you eat poultry or pork, think of ADM.) Whitacre claims that an unidentified party is sabotaging production, and that an industry insider in Japan will reveal the identity for $10,000. And then we learn that the twisted Whitacre fabricated this story just to buy some time for solving the problem. But his big fat fib backfires when his superiors call in the FBI. So Whitacre decides to distract the investigation and, with the urging of his wife, reveals one of ADM’s nasty secrets: the company is guilty of price-fixing. Suddenly, the FBI puts Whitacre undercover, taping company phone calls and meetings, to prove the crimes of his superiors. He eventually exposes one of the biggest price-fixing scandals in history. But the biggest exposure is of Whitacre himself, as a delusional and bipolar personality, a chronic liar, and a guy who can’t keep a secret—except about his own shocking indiscretions.

This true-story drama straddles the comedy zone with the title’s exclamation point and from the film’s opening disclaimer to Marvin Hamlisch’s closing theme song “Trust Me.” Throughout the film we hear Whitacre’s voiceovers revealing the obsessive commentaries surging through his brain, which alone could provide an evening’s entertainment. And we fathom the depth of Whitacre’s misguided judgment through his certainty that by exposing ADM he’ll be promoted to president.

With the precise direction of Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven, and Twelve and Thirteen), the film draws from the meticulously researched book The Informant, A True Story Based on a Tattle Tale, by New York Times investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald. The cast includes a gaggle of familiar television comedians like The Soup’s Joel McHale and the Smothers Brothers. And Matt Damon delivers his unique version of Whitacre, a bright, unpredictable, and precariously flawed character we will never understand. Soderbergh takes a huge risk in traveling the lighter side of a troubling topic. But somehow the comedy succeeds. And The Informant! provides an astonishing slice of history worth watching. A

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