05 April 2011

"The Informant!" and the Lies We Tell

“Things going on I don’t approve of.”  -Mark Whitacre from “The Informant!”

Soon after the above dialogue is spoken, we learn that while Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) doesn’t approve of his company’s conspiring to fix the price of corn with its global competitors, he has no problem lying – to the F.B.I., his family, himself, and countless others – or embezzling millions of dollars from his company, Archer Daniels Midland (A.D.M.). That line also illustrates the duality found all through The Informant!, mostly in the form of the humorous, frequently non-essential-to-the-plot voice-overs, which run as Whitacre’s internal monologue throughout the film. The duality also surfaces when we realize that the scandal and conspiracy we’ve been dragged into isn’t exactly what it seems.

This kind of sleight of hand cinema isn’t anything new for director Steven Soderbergh –an Academy Award winner for Traffic (2000). His Ocean’s films (three so far…) rely heavily on hiding information from the audience only to have a twisty pay-off in the final reel. Soderbergh also showcased a whistleblower character in his Oscar-winning Erin Brockovich (2000), though Mark Whitacre is obviously a far cry from Erin Brockovich. Of course, these similarities are superficial at best, but only because Soderbergh has made a career – which began with the Palme d’Or (Cannes Film Festival) winning Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), arguably the catalyst of the huge independent film explosion in the Nineties – of not repeating himself. He’s also one of few directors, if not the only one, who has the versatility to make a star-studded studio movie, such as Ocean’s Eleven (2001), and then create a small art-house film with no stars, like Bubble (2002).

Soderbergh is not only one of the most brilliant directors working today, but also a talented filmmaker overall. He typically acts as director of photography on his films – under the pseudonym Peter Andrews – and sometimes works as his own editor – also under a pseudonym, this one being Mary Ann Bernard. While wearing so many hats could overwhelm one with too many responsibilities, Soderbergh seems to thrive on being the ultimate auteur, especially with his cinematography. The Informant! takes place during the early to mid-Nineties, but by dominating the frame with varying hues of browns, yellows, oranges, and greens, the film has more of a Seventies look and feel to it. This was possibly done to give homage to the great “political noir” films of that decade, including All the President’s Men (1976) and The Parallax View (1974). I think one of the best things about Steven Soderbergh is that he shows his knowledge and respect of past cinema with subtle touches here and there – unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino, who feels the need to force his reverence of movies down his audience’s throat. Also, Soderbergh is very logical with his shot compositions. The New York Times said it best in its review of The Informant!: “Like all of Mr. Soderbergh’s movies, this one can be appreciated on purely formal terms, for the clarity of its images and the economy of the storytelling.”

And while he has filmed many of his own scripts, usually his smaller pictures, including Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Schizopolis (1996), and Solaris (2002), Soderbergh didn’t write his newest film. The praise of “the economy of the storytelling” goes to Scott Burns, a relatively new entity to Hollywood who has only a single feature to his credit – The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) – along with some short films he wrote and directed. Burns first heard about Mark Whitacre in 2000 while listening to National Public Radio and was intrigued by him, calling Whitacre "a character we hadn’t seen before." He had a finished script, adapted from the book “The Informant: A True Story” by Kurt Eichenwald, ready to shoot by 2003, but both Soderbergh and Damon weren’t available at that time. Fortunately – for both Burns and us the audience – the director and star still wanted to make the film five years later.

Burns’ script had to shed a lot of Eichenwald’s 600 page book, but the most invented part of the screenplay didn’t even come from the source material. At one point during the writing process Burns decided to give Whitacre voice-overs throughout the film – most of which add nothing to the plot, but provide plenty of humor and insight into this strange man. Many of my favorite lines of dialogue emerged from these voice-overs. In one scene, Whitacre goes on about polar bears:
When polar bears hunt, they crouch down by a hole in the ice and wait for a seal to pop up. They keep one paw over their nose so that they blend in.  Cuz they’ve got those black noses. They’d blend in perfectly if not for the nose. So the question is: how do they know their noses are black? From looking at other polar bears? Do they see their reflections in the water and think, ‘I’d be invisible if not for that.’ That seems like a lot of thinking for a bear.
I really enjoyed the voice-overs because I’ve been in similar situations – just thinking about something else while life is going on around me. Sometimes I’ll be thinking about what I’m going to have for lunch and then moments later, through some weird chain reaction and unusual cause and effect, I’m trying to remember how many Oscar nominations A Man for All Seasons (1966) received – Jimmy John’s and eight (with six wins), respectively.

But to get back on track – I think the one line from Burns’ script that sums up the theme of The Informant! is spoken by the judge who sentences Whitacre near the end of the film: “It’s very difficult to tell when Mr. Whitacre is telling the truth.” This was most apparent to me during of the film second viewing. When I first saw the movie, whenever Whitacre seemed to be struggling to tell the F.B.I. something I just figured he was fighting within himself; that is, is it worth ruining the company for justice? Should I tell the F.B.I. about the illegal activity that’s happening at A.D.M.? Yet upon seeing the film a second time, instead of being moments of turmoil for Whitacre they became the instances that he was constructing his lies. In fact, the second time around was more exciting for me because I wanted to see if I could figure out when the lying began. Ultimately, I think it had started before the film began – at least the embezzling part – but was truly set in motion when the lysine wasn’t overcoming the virus affecting it. Whitacre needed a reason for the poor production and, perhaps hoping to get (or embezzle) more money, he conjured a saboteur. This wouldn’t be a problem, but when A.D.M. involves the F.B.I. the lies begin to snowball. Even though Whitacre doesn’t want the F.B.I. around, he eventually uses them and their devices and techniques to live out a spy fantasy.

No matter when the lying began, Mark Whitacre and The Informant! are both fascinating to watch. Matt Damon transforms himself – I didn’t really see Damon playing Whitacre until the final scenes, after Whitacre shaved his mustache. Despite all the lies and misleads and betrayal, I found myself routing for Whitacre to succeed throughout the film. Even when his lies began to unravel and we were allowed to see him prepare one - the scene where he rips his jacket, musses his hair, etc., and tells Ginger, his wife, that he was "kidnapped" - I was guiltily hoping it would all work out for him. This was particularly true on the second viewing. Since I knew the outcome of Whitacre's trail of deceit, seeing him ready himself to keep his fantasy alive was actually heartbreaking to watch. The same holds true for when Agent Shepard confronts Whitacre with proof of his falsities.

I know that Whitacre is a criminal, but I can also understand and, perhaps more importantly, empathize with him and his plight. We all want success and happiness and to be good people, but sometimes reality is too difficult to work around, so we construct little lies or lie to ourselves about who we are and what the future holds for us. I think what separates most people from Mark Whitacre is that Whitacre's lies became more real than he had expected and he lost his footing in the real world.

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