Contrary to what Ayn Rand may have told you, corporations are for the most part evil. When left to their own devices they will gladly screw over their competitors, their employees, and their customers if it will make them a little more profit. This is why they make such effective Hollywood villains, they have a long history of activities that would make Darth Vader blush and deep down they have almost no remorse. Since every villain needs a hero to vanquish them, Hollywood has invented someone to put a white hat on: the whistleblower. While the whistleblower genre probably doesn’t have as many websites dedicated to it as other sub-genres, it’s actually a pretty populous category of film and like most things that are done to death people are beginning to get a bit sick of its pattern of self-riotousness and manufactured drama. So, when it came to light that Steven Soderbergh was making adapting the story of real life whistle blower Mark Whitacre it was safe to guess we’d get something more than standard genre fare, and from the moment the film’s trailer came out it was clear that was the case.
Based on the nonfiction book by Kurt Eichenwald, this film tells the story of the man who helped the FBI conduct one of the biggest price fixing scams in American History. This investigation began when the company called in the FBI to deal with an extortion scheme reported by Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), an executive in the lysine division of ADM. Shortly into an investigation by agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), Whitacre reveals that he and his colleagues have been illegally conspiring with other companies to systematically drive up prices worldwide. Whitacre agrees to wear a wire and collect evidence against the company he works for, and in doing so is able to collect an unprecedented amount of evidence for the FBI. Whitacre claims he’s doing this to clear his conscience, but he doesn’t really seem all that torn up about lysine consumers, so why is he doing this? That will turn out to be the key question at the heart of all of this, because Mark Whiticre is not exactly what he seems.
The conventional wisdom about Steven Soderbergh is that he does big budget studio produced films filled with celebrities in order to build the cache required to make low budget experimental films starring non-actors. Because of this reputation critics are inevitably going to deride this as one of the former, but really this whole notion is something of a misnomer. This may have a bigger budget than something like Bubble and it may star an A-list celebrity, but deep down the way this film handles genre is just as experimental as a lot of those other projects. If you go to one of those seminars they have to teach screenwriters how to build successful formulaic films step by step, the first thing they’ll tell you is to focus on a character with a clear motivation and to have that motivation drive the plot. As such, this would have largely focused on the goal of bringing down ADM and stuck with this conflict throughout if this were a conventional film. Instead, this movie becomes defiantly disinterested in the fate of ADM and instead focuses on what the title says it will focus on the informant.
This informant himself is a pretty odd character played brilliantly by Matt Damon. Whiticre is a strange person who seems more like Ned Flanders than Deep Throat. He’s in his forties, has a bad comb-over, and a goofy looking mustache. More importantly, the guy’s a doofus; he’s the antithesis of the intense image of businessman that Gordon Gecko embodied. At times Whiticre seems to not grasp the stakes of his actions, and the film’s voice over track is clouded by his odd stream-of-consciousness musings about subjects ranging from the German word for pen to the thinking patterns of polar bears. This man’s existence is certainly one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” type creations and making him believable had to have been a hefty challenge. Fortunately Matt Damon brings Whiticre to the screen excellently. It takes a little while for Damon’s achievement to really sink in, but when you compare his performance here to the badass he was when playing Jason Bourne and it becomes immensely clear how much of a range Damon has as an actor.
Because Whiticre is so strange many have come to label this movie a spoof, but I’d hesitate to use that term simply because it conjures images of broadly comic films like Aireplane and Scary Movie, and this film is neither as silly as those films nor is it trying to be as funny. However, this film does play with genre conventions in a way that’s not completely unlike what spoof films do. This is a movie that easily could have focused other elements, chosen a different tone, and used different techniques and end up looking like a remake of The Insider. Instead Soderbergh is able to make this movie a completely different through a handful of unexpected decisions. For example, the film has adopted a very 1970s aesthetic (even though the story is set in the early 90s), this would seem like a logical enough choice if one was trying to channel the corporate thrillers of that era like The China Syndrome, Serpico, and Silkwood, but it isn’t really the serious filmmaking of the 70’s that he’s channeling. Rather, Soderbergh is channeling everything that was kind of tacky about the era like the gaudy font the captions are in or the unexpected but compelling smooth jazz score by Marvin Hamlisch. As such, the film’s aesthetics sort of play with what we’re supposed to expect from this kind of movie just as much as the script does.
Ignoring all the genre trickery we do still get what is on its own a very fascinating story. Mark Whitacre is an enigma, one that has not been completely cracked by the time the credits role and a big part of the joys of this film are trying to figure out just what makes him tick. What’s more strange is that aside from some of his more self-sabotaging habits, Whitacre isn’t too different from most corporate executives. He’s a man who lies, cheats, and steals almost as a habit then hides behind an “aw shucks” smile, the only difference is that he seems to believe his own bullshit. In focusing on this personality we get a much better look at the face of corporate crime than we ever would watching the heroes take down another anonymous board room filled with mustache twirlers. While I wouldn’t place this in the upper echelon of Soderbergh’s work, this is a movie that deserves as much respect and analysis his movies which wear their experimental nature like a badge of honor.
***1/2 out of Four