Title: The Informant!
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns, based on the non-fiction book by Kurt Eichenwald
Stars: Matt Damon, Melanie Lynskey, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, Tony Hale
The Story: Matt Damon is the real-life whistleblower Mark Whitacre who exposed the insidious agribusiness giant Archers Daniels Midland to the FBI. He does an amazing job as their inside man, but they soon discover that their informant hasn’t been telling them (or anybody) the whole truth.
How it Came to be Underrated: (I’ll go a little more in depth than usual)
- This movie has no one to blame for its own failure but itself. A great true story, a brilliant screenplay, brisk direction and an Oscar-worthy lead performance were all sabotaged by terrible titles, the worst score in movie history, and a rogue exclamation point. In short, this was a great movie that was totally ruined in post-production.
- What went wrong?? I have two theories: the simple one is that the original movie didn’t “test” well enough, and the studio made the inane decision to belated repackage it as an all-out comedy.
- But here’s the more elaborate theory: Soderbergh rightly saw this a chance to do a ‘70s-style conspiracy thriller, but then he made the maddening decision to actually add a “‘70s style” to the movie, right down to a “groovy” font and a godawful Marvin Hamlisch score that sounds like the hold music at a clown college.
- One of the many reasons that this was terrible decision is that we’ve had very few “early ‘90s” era period pieces and this could have been an excellent opportunity to actually talk about the meaning of that era and its corruption, rather than pretend that these events only make sense in some sort of Nixonian context, as the titles and music imply.
Why It’s Nevertheless Great:
- Eichenwald’s astounding journalism (and storytelling instincts) produced an all-too-believable portrait of what real whistleblowers are like. The impulse that causes these people to transgress society’s boundaries and tell uncomfortable truths soon starts to run away from them. If society is telling you that right is wrong, it becomes hard to remind yourself that wrong isn’t therefore right.
- I first heard Eichenwald’s book dramatized as a thrilling hour-long “This American Life” story, and my first thought was: “This has to become a movie!” But then I thought again and realized how hard that would be. Luckily, Burns was up to the challenge and then some. The first trick was to focus on Whitacre, and not his target. Audiences find it hard to care about white-collar crime, but everybody loves to watch a weasel get caught by his own lies.
- Of course, for better or worse, Burns’s choice here ironically mirrors Whitacre’s own real-life predicament: He exposed his company’s theft of hundreds of millions of dollars, but then the FBI discovered that, along the way, he had stolen more than a few millions for himself. Inevitably, the FBI decided that it’d be much easier to go after their own whistleblower, who was, after all, cooperating with them, than it was to take down a stonewalling corporation with a bottomless legal budget.
- Burns’s second trick was to write one of my all time favorite voice-overs, (albeit one that only an actor of Damon’s caliber could have pulled off) Long before the audience (or Whitacre himself) is willing to admit that he’s crazy, the evidence is there for us to hear, in the form of an out-of-control stream of consciousness voiceover, in which Whitacre pieces together a pseudo-reality patchwork of fact and fiction from a million different sources, including the novels of Michael Crichton and John Grisham.
- This all culminates in an absolutely stunning scene where Whitacre’s mouth finally catches up with his now-exhausted brain, and the voice-over slowly begins to overlap with what he’s actually saying out loud. It’s a crime that Damon didn’t get an Oscar, or even a nomination, for his riveting performance.
- I was happy that Heavenly Creatures made Kate Winslet a star, but disappointed that her great co-star Melanie Lynskey seemed to totally disappear. But lo and behold, Lynskey has very slowly re-emerged (purged of her NZ accent) in a steady stream of quietly powerful character roles. Check out her credits, you’ve probably seen her (and liked her) more often then you realize. She’s does a typically great job as Damon’s weary wife.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: A similar movie from around the same time that did a better job maintaining the right tricky tone was Burn After Reading. The show “Homeland” has a very similar hero, whose bipolar disorder both helps and harms a government investigation.
How Available Is It?: Netflix only has a bare-bones, but nice-looking DVD.