The Informant! Denunciation vs. Deflation as Rhetorical Strategies
The Informant! I was led to believe there’d be righteous indignation. This movie denies us our retribution. And yet for cynics craving a smart, cathartic exegesis of emptiness and avarice in corporate America, you’d be hard pressed to find any poison more satisfying than Capitalism, a Love…I mean, The Informant!
Based on journalist Kurt Eichenwald’s exhaustively researched book of the same name, the movie is ostensibly about a major price fixing scandal at agricultural behemoth ADM, a corporation that produces and distributes the food near the bottom of your longer ingredients lists, and one that pulls the strings in our global economy in the way that only real power can—in total obscurity. But the conspiracy only provides the context for the real story here, which hinges on the lovably deranged ADM employee turned covert FBI informant, Mark Whitacre, a man with more secrets than the company he is trying, for some reason, to expose.
Following the publication of the book, Whitacre was featured in an episode of This American Life, in which Ira Glass’s telling of the tale reflects in its similarities to the movie just how subtly Soderbergh has warped the raw material. In the radio segment, as in the film, the comedy derives easily from Whitacre’s bizarre behavior and from the dumbfounded reactions he elicits from a slew of executives, FBI agents, and lawyers caught in his wake. It is a portrait, mainly, of an odd man gone awry, and as such, remains an isolated, if bizarre and humorous tale. But the film broadens the scope, and while the story still belongs to Whitacre, Soderbergh locates the heart of The Informant! deeper in the facts, digging into an unsettling structural absurdity that lies beneath even its main character’s delusions. He finds there not just bad haircuts and deadening gray offices where white collar drama takes place—but also the pettiness of major crime, the banality of real-world intrigue, the smallness of big men. The Informant! is the story of a system as much as it is the story of a man.
It’s a particularly compelling angle from a director whose recent films are linked as variations on this common theme. Like Che Guevara [Benicio del Toro] in his eponymous Che films and Chelsea [Sasha Grey] in his subsequent The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh’s Mark Whitacre is a character lost in his context. While Matt Damon brings dead-pan absurdity to the role, he also brings genuine pathos to a man who feels as much a lost soul as he does a delusional corporate climber. He is oddly likeable, even lovable, not simply for his clumsy innocence, but also for his eyes, which betray a smart and vulnerable person who’s been warped. To watch him claw desperately, without betraying fear, as his lies spiral out of control, as a stable suburban world crashes around him, it’s hard to not recall a similarly stoic Che Guevarra wandering through the Chilean jungle, pursuing a futile and violent fight, blinded to the human cost of war by the relentless pursuit of his own fantastic vision. Like Whitacre, only his eyes betray human doubt. Or the stoic Chelsea, wandering through that other jungle in Manhattan, selling herself—and it’s more than just her body—in pursuit of warped definitions of success that are shared by the powerful men who court her, who buy intimacy in addition to sex. Again, doubt lingers only in her eyes.
Guevara, Chelsea, and Whitacre are linked as humans adrift in overwhelming systems in which they find, at the juncture of the individual and the world, greed, alienation, boredom, and the often murky lines that separate heroism from hubris and selfishness from selflessness. It’s hard to imagine a succession of more wildly divergent films that nevertheless assert themselves, unambiguously, as the moral work of a single director.
The Informant! might be called a tragicomedy if it weren’t for the grandiose dimensions the term implies. For where tragedy connotes Leer, Mark Whitacre is all Loman—this is American prosperity as Sad Farce. It’s a tale of white collar crime that relentlessly undermines any attempt at high drama. There’s Marvin Hamlisch’s campy score, highlighting with retro string swells just how undramatic these fluorescent hallways and white-board earnings meetings really are. And then there are the supporting roles, where Soderbergh casts as FBI agents and corporate executives a troupe of contemporary comedians who are maybe the only people in the world more angry than filmmakers. The casting has a strangely visual logic to it: To watch Patton Oswald in an oversized suit opine to a boardroom of FBI agents what constitutes, pragmatically speaking, prosecutable economic fraud, or to listen to Tom Papa as Whitacre’s boss threaten, “You tell me. I’ll tell my Dad.”—it looks like kids playing dress-up as adults they don’t respect. If that sounds glib or flippant, that’s only because it’s cynical.
It’s all shot with an eye for mundane beauty. As is the case with all of his movies, Soderbergh (here credited as Peter Andrews) is cinematographer as well as director. The story unfolds against landscapes of America’s heartland—shots of Holiday Inns, and office parks, and fallow corn fields, and the sort of vast, half-empty parking lots that surround development wherever land is cheap. The camera rarely moves but often lingers a few awkward beats after the fact in the fluorescent-lit offices where most of the action takes place. It brings to mind the work of another great documentarian of the empty spaces between the coasts: William Eggleston’s washed-out landscapes of Tennessee with the hyper-saturated reds and yellows bleeding in the stark, eerie beauty of America’s suburban and industrial South. It’s enough to wonder if it might be more than coincidence.
The Informant! has taken its share of criticism for not being Michael Clayton or The Insider or Wall Street or even Soderbergh’s own Erin Brockovich—dramas that don’t find corporate fraud and exploitation, not to mention bipolar disorder, so amusing. The New York Press remarked, “There’s no humanity to relate to, no wit to laugh at, only chuckling at one’s own sense of superiority.” (I would argue that we don’t stand at such a distance from the joke.) Even a majority of the good reviews, and there are many, averted criticism by conceding the point: categorizing The Informant! as a piece of sharp filmmaking, a zany caper akin to Catch Me if You Can. Both criticism and praise miss the point—
–Which is something closer to a summary, offered as sharp criticism in a review that was mostly just disappointed The Informant! wasn’t The Insider, in the East Bay Express: “Mark’s big-business shenanigans peter out anticlimactically over the course of six or seven years and that’s that.” Yes. It’s disarming. It cuts down greed and power in a way that stories about heroes and villains cannot. Because smart as they might be, the grand polemics too often grant those heroes and villains tremendous weight, and so too, a romantic quality that rings absolutely false. Here, the shady corporate executives are oafs in tacky suits; the elite FBI investigators hot on their trail are something like over-earnest and underfunded nonprofit employees up against forces too comically big to change; their agency is more interested in the Byzantine details of what it can, rather than what it ought to prosecute. There is no high drama in this corporate intrigue, no seriousness of purpose for the executives making millions or the sleuths in noble pursuit of the public interest. It’s men playing at inane jobs, the sum total of which is an amoral system that warps the winners and rips off the losers in the face of comically impotent justice.
The Informant! robs the drama of the allure that too often tarnishes stories about the “Masters of the Universe,” a phrase that not only makes the stomach turn for granting power to idiots, but that also feels discordant, on a fundamental level, with the way the world works. The Informant! as absurd comedy achieves an unsettling realism. Isn’t it wonderful that the glib comedy, amongst an entire academy category’s worth of serious dramas, comes closest to being the documentary? See also: Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room.
In response to charges of flippancy, it seems unfair not to at least grant Soderbergh—director of three art-house movies on this common theme—some seriousness of intent. So consider as evidence the comedic ramblings of Mark Whitacre: Throughout the course of the movie, over images of him walking stiffly in his too-big suit, he delivers non-sequitor musings in dead-pan voiceover. It’s a glimpse of wandering mind played for comedic effect. And then you realize that these strange ideas are all connected to the heart of what this ridiculous story is about: that a field might make an excellent retail outlet mall, that the polar bear’s black nose is the only thing giving the predator away, that the monarch butterfly tricks its predators with color into believing it’s poison, that Japanese businessmen buy used panties in vending machines. The world is linked, in nature and perversion, by the logic of the market. At least, that is, according to the global business aphorisms. The ideas of Mark Whitacre are those of the guy next door whose read too much of the Friedmans—Milton the scholar and Thomas the pitchman. Here is an imagination absolutely fixated. Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or shout. Though I think Soderbergh is most definitely shouting.
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