But the finished product stands up to the scrutiny. I'd read it's like A Beautiful Mind meets The Insider. And that's not bad, of course. Director Steven Soderbergh's prodigious and excellent body of work cuts him plenty of slack. Michael Clayton, Syriana, and Oceans 11 and 13 alone would command our respect, but he's also responsible for Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
This true story follows Whitacre, the former president of Archer Daniels Midland's bio products division from 1989-1995 who turned FBI informant. He reveals global price fixing schemes regarding lysine, and his motives appear genuine, even heroic. As he agrees at one point in the film, he is wearing the white hat and the other ADM execs are wearing black hats. But the haunting question is asked by Agent Brian Shepard (played with great agility by Scott Bakula) "Why are you doing this, Mark?" That's where this movie proves interesting and why I'll stop giving anything else away.
This film bursts out of the gate fast and funny during the first 45 minutes as Marvin Hamlisch's score urges the story along with a kind of non-sequitor brashness. The music takes you by surprise and in someone else's hands it might be out of synch with what's on screen, but here it works beautifully. There is a Pink Panther lightness and buoyancy achieved both musically and visually with wonderful pop art graphics that reveal, for example, we are in Decatur, Illinois in 1992. You half expect Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees to jump out from behind a fern in the ADM offices and start singing "I'm A Believer."
One especially effective technique is Soderbergh's use of the Whitacre voice-over. We not only receive insights into Mr. Whitacre's tumbled logic, but we also see ourselves in the sometimes slap-happy thoughts he has while involved in serious business discussions. He makes incoherency worth thinking about.
But, in the end, this is Damon's movie. And for all the screen time we as moviegoers have had with him over the years, he still manages to transcend all that, to go beyond Bourne and Ripley and Edward Wilson and come up with something truly unique, vibrant and interesting. He goes beyond the weight gain, the glasses and the mousey naivety to create a very real, developed and complex human being whose motives we brood on mightily as we leave the theater. It may be time to count Damon among this country's best actors, though I suspect that will be difficult for some.
There are moments in The Informant! that do feel like Ripley, as Whitacre is always a fingertip away from being found out. The big difference is we don't know what's true and what's not. We, like Whitacre's wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), want to believe in his childlike earnestness.
If good movies do anything, they teach us more about life's contradictions than about its easy solutions. The Informant! does that masterfully.
The Informant! ★★★★✩
Starring: Matt Damon, Melanie, Lynseky, Scott Bakula
Directed by Steven Soderberg.