For his role in Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! as corporate executive turned whistleblower Mark Whitacre, Matt Damon gained something like thirty pounds. He didn’t need do it to look like the real Whitacre because none of us know what the real Mark Whitacre looks like. He did it because The Informant! is a rather crafty satire of whistleblower movies and that’s what actors are expected to do in whistleblower movies; put on a whole mess of weight to let us know how “serious” they are.
The whole film plays as a send-up of all the most tired clichés of whistleblower movies like The Insider, The China Syndrome, even Soderbergh’s own Erin Brockovich, where pure-hearted individuals protect the American public from venal corporate treachery. What’s surprising about the film isn’t how silly it gets, but how accurate it apparently remains as it gets sillier and sillier. When the FBI begins sniffing around his workplace, the food additive conglomerate Archer Daniels Midland, Whitacre alerts them to ADM’s illegal price fixing schemes. After meeting in secret with Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), Whitacre agrees to turn informant. The question, though, is why: Does Whitacre think what the company’s doing is wrong? Is he looking to cover his own ass? Is he a glory hog? Or is he just self-destructive and crazy?
Like a lot of the movies The Informant! pokes fun at, Whitacre has a rather inflated sense of self-importance. He gives himself his own secret agent codename – “Double-O Fourteen” – because he’s “twice as smart” as 007. His working life is a drab world of cubicles and fluorescent light bulbs, but the campy, outsized score by Marvin Hamlisch hints at Whitacre’s borderline delusional belief that it is the setting of a grand and glorious adventure of which he is the heroic main character. When Whitacre watches Sydney Pollack’s The Firm, he clearly views the film less as an entertainment than a how-to guide for heroic whistleblowing. Damon, who played the hero of another Grisham adaptation, The Rainmaker (1997), and a master card player in Rounders, is an ideal Whitacre. He’s got a flawless, tell-free poker face.
We keep looking for answers in Damon’s extensive voiceover narration but it’s just one big stream of inconsequential consciousness; while the FBI instructs him how to operate a recording device, he’s daydreaming about poisonous butterflies. The whole thing is an ingenious bit of misdirection by Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns: hearing Whiteacre’s makes us think we know the full scope of his plans. Only later do we realize that we’ve been conned just like everyone else.
Like Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 series, The Informant! is a funny movie with no jokes. The humor comes from situation, from reaction shots, and from the absurdity of Whitacre (much of it, absurdly, drawn from real life). The supporting cast features numerous actors standup comedians including Patton Oswalt, Joel McHale, and Paul F. Tompkins and even though they aren’t given anything overtly comedic to do, they contribute to the overall atmosphere of deadpan observational humor.
The figure of the whistleblower, the valiant, self-sacrificing hero who risks a career and even personal safety to expose corporate corruption, has traditionally been one of the most reverently held figures in all of cinema. It’s one of the few archetypes of unambiguous good left in the movies. But whistleblower movies only work when the film itself is something of a whistleblower: shocking audiences with tales of venal profiteering and unethical behavior. In our current world of obscene corporate bailouts and malignant greed, those concepts aren’t shocking, they’re givens, and a hero like Mark Whitacre—a glory hound and possible lunatic—makes perfect sense.