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Non-Review Review: The Informant!

The Informant! has some tricky subject matter to cover. Its subject, Mark Whitacre, remains a controversial figure in the history of corporate law enforcement up to (and probably well beyond) the present day. It’s a complex history, one which involves the most high-profile FBI investigation into price-fixing at major American companies, but which involves a very complicated central figure. I’m hesitant to go into too much detail as – although I’m not sure you can “spoil” a true story – I don’t want to ruin the experience of watching the film for anyone, but it’s a very fascinating example of corporate whistleblowing.

You'll be on the edge of your seat...

Dealing with a true story like this is always difficult. The facts of the Whitacre case are so insane that – were you to describe them to somebody – they sound like they should be a comedy. In directing the film, Soderbergh is faced with the same sort of problems that undoubtedly confronted the cast and crew of I Love You, Phillip Morris when bring that story to the screen: how do you do justice to the events without ever taking it over the top? If you push a story that is already almost unbelievable too far, you risk losing your audience.

Of course, the story of Stephen Russell has an ace in the hole. Despite his many flaws, the audience can admire and relate to Russell. Russell is a smart and charming character, one who is able to survive by his guile and wits. We want to like him, because he’s smooth and sophisticated (just as much as he is manipulative and cynical). The lead character in this film, Mark Whitacre, lacks this advantage. Whitacre isn’t especially bright or especially witty. He’s the kinda guy who everybody in the office is nice towards (because he’s polite to them), but about whom they probably have doubts.

Putting Whitacre to the test...

The movie grants us an insight into his consciousness as he rambles on about the latest Michael Crichton novel or buying ties in bulk, especially when he should be paying attention to the world around. Such moments are hilarious, but they illustrate that Whitacre isn’t exactly a protagonist that we’re meant to cheer on. If we stare at Jim Carrey and like to imagine that we are as clever as Steve Russell, we look at Matt Damon and hope that we aren’t as bumbling and insecure as Mark Whitacre. Some writers have suggested that Whitacre suffered from bi-polar disorder (a suspicion voiced in this film), and there’s a definite sense that there’s something “not quite right” about him, as he boasts about his undercover work to just about anyone who will listen – even showing his wire to the next door neighbour.

The facts around the case are somewhat muddied, and Soderbergh does try to be even-handed in addressing the story of the FBI sting operation which used Mark Whitacre as its primary intelligence source. Somehow I doubt anybody involved in the real events from any particular angle is especially happy with how things are portrayed – Whitacre is neither angel nor demon here, but a very flawed human being. The system around him is just as crazy and stupid, as the FBI find themselves shaken by any number of the hilarious (in hindsight) revelations which shake the movie. We’re the audience – unless we’ve read up on the movie beforehand, we’re not supposed to see these things coming, but it seems everybody in the movie (Whitacre, the FBI, his employers) is partially blind to what is going on.

It works well as a comedy. In fact, I’m not really sure that the movie would work as a drama or a thriller. It’s never especially mean or farcical – though it’s fun to note the various comedians that Soderbergh casts in key roles, as if make some sort of subtle point about the players involved in this saga. There are a few loud laughs scattered throughout the film, but the bulk of the picture is an enjoyable low-key comedy. I spent most of it grinning anyway, which is a good sign. the movie does strain a bit to make up its two-hour runtime, but it is engaging enough that it never feels excessively padded.

In good company?

As usual with a Soderbergh film, the cast is top notch. Matt Damon does the very “actor-y” thing of playing with his weight to take on the central role, but he’s good enough that I’m sure I would have bought “regular Matt Damon with a dodgy moustache” in the part. It’s his tone and his walk that sell us Whitacre. We have the man’s measure before things really start to heat up. It’s a good role, and quite possibly the strongest I’ve seen Damon.

The rest of the cast is composed of relative unknowns around Damon, which probably helps the actor blend in. It’s nice, however, to see Scott Bakula back in action. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Quantum Leap star – and seeing him in American Beauty was a pleasant surprise, as is seeing him here.

The Informant! isn’t a brilliant film. It is too long and too uneven for that. However, it’s an interesting one. It’s ridiculous and serious, both at the same time. It is helped by a solid leading performance and a skilled director. It’s well worth a look.

2 Responses

  1. Good review. This movie was way too long for its own good and I didn’t find it all that funny or engaging. Matt Damon gives a good performance but not nearly enough to salvage this.

    • I think I’m a little kinder, but I agree 100% that it is over long. It tires itself out, quite a bit, I think. But I like the absurdity of it all.

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