What was Mark Whitacre thinking? A rising star at agri-industry giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Whitacre (Matt Damon) suddenly turns whistleblower. Even as he exposes his company's multi-national price-fixing conspiracy to the FBI, Whitacre envisions himself being hailed as a hero of the common man and handed a promotion. But before all that can happen, the FBI needs evidence, so Whitacre eagerly agrees to wear a wire and carry a hidden tape recorder in his briefcase, imagining himself as a kind of de facto secret agent.
Unfortunately for the FBI, their lead witness hasn't been quite so forthcoming about helping himself to the corporate coffers. Whitacre's ever-changing account frustrates the agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale) and threatens the case against ADM as it becomes almost impossible to decipher what is real and what is the product of Whitacre's active imagination.
Based on the true story of the highest-ranking corporate whistleblower in U.S. history.
"I caught a big break there, real big break."
During its theatrical run, posters and ads promoted 'The Informant!' with the tag line, "Unbelievable" in big letters. It certainly is. The movie's storyline is utterly preposterous. Who could believe that the directors of major corporations from around the world would ever band together and hold conferences for the explicit purpose of planning how to defraud their customers and falsely manipulate the prices for their products? These characters have all the subtlety of James Bond villains. All we're missing is a man cloaked in shadow stroking a fluffy white cat. This is the stuff of paranoid Hollywood fantasy. The real world simply doesn't work like that. Real corporate corruption is much more subtle and complex. It's done covertly, through the use of convoluted accounting, legal loopholes, and miles of red tape. How can we take seriously the image of the COO of one of the largest companies in America standing at a pie chart that illustrates how to illegally divide up the worldwide market? C'mon now, that's just absurd.
Except that, in this case, that's exactly what happened. This is the true story of the lysine price fixing scandal at the Archer Daniels Midland Company during the mid-1990s. And it only gets more outrageous from there.
What's that, you've never heard of lysine? Price fixing sounds boring? Let's up the ante a little. Stories about corporate corruption like this inevitably involve a whistleblower, the lone hero who decides to act on his or her moral convictions by exposing the company's wrongdoings, no matter the personal consequences. Think of Karen Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, or Jeffrey Wigand ('The Insider'). Mark Whitacre, the ADM executive who worked undercover with the FBI for almost three years, saw himself in exactly such a heroic light as he recorded hundreds of hours of conversations about conspiracy and fraud. The only problem is that his motives for doing this were, shall we say, less than noble.
Matt Damon packed on quite a few pounds and grew a bushy mustache to play Whitacre as a friendly, good-natured nerd who just so happens to be completely delusional. He narrates the movie with a hilarious internal monologue that follows Mark's thoughts as they drift from the topic at hand to random tangents about what causes blotchy skin and how polar bears know that they have black noses. Mark somehow manages to be simultaneously the most incompetent undercover spy of all time, and yet also one of the most effective. The key to his success, and ultimately to his undoing, is his steadfast belief in himself a hero. He enthusiastically leaps into his role as an FBI mole, convinced that, once all the chips have fallen and the rotten apples are purged from the company, the Board of Directors will reward him for his honesty and promote him to run the place. Never mind his own complicity in the crimes and involvement in his own illegal activities. Like I said, delusional.
Did I mention that the movie version of this story is sort of a comedy? Steven Soderbergh has seen plenty of whistleblower movies in his day, and even directed 'Erin Brockovich'. He wasn't so interested in doing that again. What he found appealing about Whitacre's story was the complete absurdity and even surrealism of how it played out. He has largely populated the supporting cast with comedians like Joel McHale, Patton Oswald, Paul F. Thompkins, Tony Hale, and even both Tom and Dick Smothers, all playing straight roles. Undoubtedly, the director cast them for their abilities to deliver good double-takes, of which they are required frequently. Stealing the show, however, is Scott Bakula as Mark's patient, understanding, and eventually incredulous FBI handler. What he achieves with a totally blank, neutral face conveys more depth and personality than any wild emoting another actor in another movie might have attempted.
'The Informant!' (exclamation mark intended) was criminally overlooked during its theatrical release. Admittedly, Soderbergh has a very oddball sense of humor. This certainly isn't a gut-busting slapstick farce with Jim Carrey mugging to the camera. It's a very droll, deadpan type of comedy that's played absolutely straight as events become more and more ridiculous. Even though the story is set in the 1990s, Soderbergh has filled the movie with the trappings of the 1970s (the heyday of corporate and political thrillers), down to its bubbly credits and jaunty Marvin Hamlisch score. Once you adjust to the director's style, the picture is smart and funny, and tells a fascinating true story.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Informant!' comes to Blu-ray from Warner Home Video. Early copies of the Blu-ray will include a second disc with a standard DVD version of the movie and a Digital Copy. Later pressings may not include the second disc. The cardboard slipcover over the case will indicate which version you're buying.
The Blu-ray starts with two annoying promos. Unlike most Warner discs, this Blu-ray does have a main menu screen.
Soderbergh shot 'The Informant!' on HD video using his new favorite toy, the RED ONE camera. (This is the same camera that he used on both 'Che' and 'The Girlfriend Experience'.) Even though the movie has been photographed with a lot of soft lighting and some intentionally blown out contrasts to give it a hazy glow, the 1.78:1 image (negligibly opened up from the theatrical 1.85:1) is nonetheless remarkably sharp and detailed. Colors and flesh tones are often a bit on the warm side, which seems to be a common attribute to many production shot with RED, but are pleasing all the same.
Being a well-lit, all-digital production, the picture has no discernable grain or noise. Unfortunately, the Blu-ray's 1080p/VC-1 transfer has some visible compression artifacting, which I noticed even before discovering that Warner had squeezed the movie onto a single-layer disc. The first occurrence I spotted was some minor blocking in the sky at time code 9:08. Similar problems happen sporadically in other patches of solid colors. Generally, these issues are mild and not very distracting. But they are just enough to keep the disc from perfection.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is perfectly fine, but hardly notable in any respect. The movie has a pretty standard comedy mix. It's very dialogue-focused, and rarely strays beyond the front soundstage. There's little to no surround activity. Dynamic range is also pretty limited. Don't go in expecting any cracking gunshots or big explosions here.
Fidelity is very good. Dialogue is always crisp and clear. In fact, the Marvin Hamlisch score has terrific musical warmth. The film was never intended to dazzle anyone with its slam-bang sound design. This is an understated soundtrack. It works for the movie. There's little technically wrong with the disc. However, the copy under review suffered a momentary audio dropout at time code 1:28:46. This may or may not affect regular retail copies.
The Blu-ray has very little in the way of bonus features. Strangely, the comparable DVD edition has even less. For some strange reason, Warner has chosen to keep the audio commentary exclusive to the high-def release. (More on that in the next section.) The only thing the two discs share in common is the following:
'The Informant!' deserved a lot more attention during its theatrical release. It's a very smart, entertaining movie with a story that defies credibility so blatantly that it could only be true. The Blu-ray looks pretty great, even though the studio hasn't lavished it with much in the way of bonus features. Recommended.