Soderbergh’s latest blows whistle on mental illnessInstantly, as a briefcase flips open and a tape begins to roll, the audience of Steven Soderbergh’s newest film, “The Informant!” is immersed in the world of Mark Whitacre and the life of lies and conspiracy he built to maintain it.
“The Informant!” is based on a true story about an ordinary man whose lies lead him into an extraordinary situation. Mark Whitacre, played by Matt Damon, is a corporate vice president for Archer Daniels Midland. After discovering the company’s price-fixing activities, he becomes an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The film follows Whitacre as he helps the FBI with a corporate espionage case in 1992, until he reveals ADM’s involvement in an international price-fixing of a lysine conspiracy. Whitacre secretly records conversations he has with various figures – from ADM’s international rivals supporting their agreement to sell lysine at the same price. Whitacre falls deeper and deeper into the case, thriving off the thrill of working with the FBI. But the case also placates to a darker side of his demeanor, one which thrives off falsehoods and deception.
Whitacre’s compulsive lying is later attributed to his undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which screenwriter Scott Burns highlights in “The Informant!” through the use of narrated internal monologues.
Throughout the film, Whitacre engages in long, trivial narrations following a stream of consciousness form. The comedic element of the movie derives from the various topics he discusses during these narrations, including steam rising from pools and businessmen buying used panties from vending machines in Japan. Often, his internal monologue silences background dialogue during intense dramatic scenes, emphasizing his mental illness and his disconnect from the real world.
Whitacre’s internal monologues, audible only to the audience, complete the picture as the audience tries to understand his character. His mental illness distorts his train of thought so that his words are comedic, in an almost pleasurably guilty kind of way. Whitacre is unaware of his abnormal thought process, but the audience, aware of both the current situation he is in, and the idea that he is abnormal, view these clear and sudden interruptions from the storyline as humorous.
The written dialogue in the film reminds the audience that “The Informant!” is a comedy, not a drama. When asked by an ADM employee whether the FBI was tapping two lines in Whitacre’s house, FBI Special Agent Shepard (Scott Bakula) abruptly interjects, “I really can’t answer that.” Additionally, after receiving a special briefcase with a hidden tape recorder inside, Whitacre coolly refers to himself as “0014,” and when questioned why, he claims, “…cause I’m twice as smart as 007.”
“The Informant!” is a deftly written story whose script ensures its success. With Whitacre, Scott Burns crafts an endearing character, making his multimillion dollar embezzlement schemes seem trivial. Burns’ Whitacre is an optimistic, yet an incredibly naïve individual who believes he will retain his position even after he assists in the arrest of the executives of his company.
Matt Damon captures Whitacre’s character well, pulling in possibly one of his best performances to date. Damon adopted a light voice for the naïve executive, and effortlessly pulled off the complicated voiceover work. The monologues seem genuine, and surprisingly believable, for words so distant from the image seen on screen. He is so convincingly innocent that the ending is significantly more surprising.
Mark Whitacre, now COO of Cypress Systems, is a very different man from the one described in “The Informant!” Since he first began 17 years ago aiding the FBI, 14 years have passed since the trial began. During this time, Whitacre was treated for his bipolar disorder and has since stabilized his life. Whitacre battled stress-induced suicide attempts while he remained undiagnosed. These attempts were never featured in the film due to the nature of such an already dark comedic film.
Damon’s portrayal of Mark Whitacre, while vastly different from Dustin Hoffman’s ‘Raymond Babbitt’ in “Rain Man” or Russell Crowe’s ‘John Nash’ in “A Beautiful Mind,” is a notable example of an actor embracing the way their character thinks and adopting it as a believable character. Mental illness does not limit or define his character, but it is simply a part of who he is.
Nora Drapalski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.