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The story of an honest man doing the right thing - or is it?
Don't be misled by the title and the star, Matt Damon. This is not a thriller in the manner of Jason Bourne. Instead, it is a black comedy, an all-too-relevant one about corporate corruption. When Damon, an executive at a big Mid-Western agri-business, decides to blow the whistle on the illegal price fixing in which his company engages, he becomes an FBI informant. What begins as a simple story of an honest man doing the right thing does not take long to become a complex one involving multiple levels of deception. To tell any more of the plot would spoil the picture. But be assured that it turns, twists, and offers continual surprises, not the least of which is Damon's superb performance in an entirely different kind of role.
Rather than the super-fit trained assassin, Bourne, here Damon portrays a slightly pudgy, middle aged family man, not only the VP of the company, but also a highly educated biologist. He's happily married to Melanie Lynskey, the two of them conventionally middle American, solid and stable, their conventionality juxtaposed to the shenanigans of the corporation, and as the film progresses to their own behavior. Giving further dimensions to his main character, director Steven Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, introduce voice overs, so that as we watch Damon, we also hear what he is thinking in comments that are both comical and revealing.
Soderbergh has dealt with similar material before. He broke into fame with his independent film Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), the film that made a star of Andie MacDowell. Lies and videotape play a major role here as well, but there's no sex, although there are some obscene comments by one of the more unsavory characters (it is rated R for language). Soderbergh was the executive producer of Michael Clayton (2007) which also involved agri-business, and he directed Erin Brockovich (2000) whose heroine exposed the criminal activities of Pacific Gas and Electric. Like Erin Brockovich, Informant! tells a true story. Its protagonist, Mark Whitacre (Damon) is a real person.
The subject of the whistle blower or informant has been a recurring one. In Silkwood (1983) Meryl Streep played Karen Silkwood, who was allegedly murdered for her efforts to expose a nuclear plant's safety violations. In A Civil Action (1998) John Travolta played a lawyer who is ruined in his attempt to bring to justice a company whose spilling of toxic waste killed two children. This too was based on a real case. But lately these exposures of corporate corruption and real life fraud have been focusing on the charlatans within the organizations as well as the organizations themselves. One thinks of Catch Me If You Can (2002), the comical Steven Spielberg film that starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, Jr. More ominously one remembers Shattered Glass (2003) which deals with the phony journalism of Stephen Glass; Hoax (2006) in which Richard Gere plays Clifford Irving, who faked a biography of Howard Hughes, and most recently of Breach (2007), an excellent film recounting the treachery within the FBI of Robert Hanssen. These films do not yet constitute a genre, but they all speak to the mores of our time and are well worth viewing.
Perhaps the most surprising fact of Informant! is its being made at all, not by a shoestring independent producer supported by family and friends, not by Michael Moore as a satiric expose, but by a big studio with a big star. And what a relief amidst all the comic book violence, super explosions, and slasher films, to go to the movies and see an intelligent, complex, relevant, and superbly made and cast film. Hats off to Soderbergh, his producer friend George Clooney, and Damon, whose participation must have made the film possible.
William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of "Hollywood: An Epic Production", a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.
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