A review of The Informant! (produced and distributed by Warner Brothers; directed by Steven Soderbergh; screenplay by Scott Z. Burns based on Kirt Eichenwald’s book)

Radix omnium malorum est cupiditas,” Chaucer’s pardoner warned his guilt-ridden audiences: The root of all evil is greed.  Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! serves as a latter-day illustration of this admonition.

In The Informant! cupidity expresses itself as avoirdupois.  In this true story of the 1990’s international price-fixing scandal at the agribusiness behemoth Archer Daniels Midland, all the company’s executives are overweight, especially when compared with the modestly paid FBI agents who pursue them.  It’s what a medievalist would call a pictorial exemplum.  Fat denotes exorbitant acquisitiveness; thinness, virtuous moderation.That is why Matt Damon gained 30 pounds to play the part of Mark Whitacre, the ADM executive who blew the whistle on his company’s malfeasance even as he benefited from it.  While it’s a hazardous stunt, Damon’s weight gain has the advantage of literally bestowing gravitas on his portrayal of an ambitious and needy young man eager to move up in the world at whatever cost.

Damon plays Whitacre as a grown-up Tom Sawyer, a 35-year-old man who cultivates a boyish charm to get his way.  His youthful enthusiasm is positively infectious, and it’s backed by a never-failing smile that announces he’s everyone’s best buddy.  Nevertheless, he is ever ready to sell out those who may slow his progress.  He’s a naive Judas who turns in his colleagues for illegal practices in which he himself participated.  Despite his treachery, he witlessly thinks the board of directors will logically conclude he is the only man to take over the company he compromised.  In reality, when everything was all over, Whitacre had cost ADM $100 million in fines and untold amounts in court costs and lost profits—not the surest route to the top.

ADM hired Whitacre for his expertise in lysine, the essential amino acid that’s fed to cattle, pigs, and chickens in order to bulk them up as rapidly as possible during their journey to market and, ultimately, our tables.  Beyond the livestock, lysine had also been adding some serious bulk to ADM’s bottom line.  Whitacre’s job was to develop and manage the plant that produced lysine.  The process was simple enough: Feed corn dextrose to bacteria, and, as company insiders put it, the bugs crap lysine.  There was a problem, however.  After a promising beginning, the bacteria stopped producing lysine in the quantities ADM required to meet its sales quotas.  A virus was attacking the bugs, and no one knew how to stop it.  ADM was now faced with the risk of losing market share to one of their biggest competitors, the Japanese company Ajinomoto Inc.  Mick Andreas, ADM’s vice chairman and son of Dwight Andreas, chairman of the board, was demanding that Whitacre do something.  Shortly afterward, Whitacre reported the cause of the difficulty.  He was getting calls at home from an executive in Japan employed by Ajinomoto.  This fellow knew all about the problem, even how much it was costing ADM monthly.  It seemed Ajinomoto had placed a mole in ADM to contaminate the bacterial vats.  For a price, the mysterious caller offered to expose the mole and thus allow ADM to restore production.  Andreas was not, in principle, against paying the caller, whoever he was, but he wanted protection.  He didn’t want to find himself inadvertently breaching any international trade agreements.  So he notified the FBI.  Whitacre strongly disapproved of the move, but having no choice, he reluctantly agreed to allow his home phone to be tapped by local FBI field agent Brian Shepherd.  But when Shepherd came to fix his phone, Whitacre blurted out that there was something more amiss at ADM.  The upper brass at Archer had been fixing their lysine prices with their Japanese and Korean competitors to keep them artificially high so they could all share in a more profitable pie.  As a result, the livestock industry had been paying millions more annually for lysine than they would have in an unrigged market, and this extra cost had been passed on to consumers.  Some analysts have concluded that over the years ADM cost the U.S. economy tens of billions of dollars with such illegal fixes not only in the lysine market but in several other of their product lines.  What’s more, the higher prices had depressed demand, causing further economic hardship for producers.

From the moment Whitacre divulged this information, Shepherd knew he had something much bigger than an industrial shakedown on his hands.  And he was right.  The ADM case would become the largest antitrust investigation in American history.  And it would be prosecuted with the help of the highest-ranking corporate insider ever enlisted in such litigation, an executive who agreed—squeamishly, at first, and then with growing enthusiasm—to wear a wire and record his colleagues conducting their illegal operations.

Whitacre notified the agents where upcoming out-of-town meetings would be held so that they could videotape the executives wheeling and dealing with their Asian counterparts.  Soon Whitacre considered himself a dashing secret agent.  He even showed his neighborhood gas-station attendant his attaché case equipped with audio-recording equipment, announcing himself as Agent Double-0-Fourteen.  “I’m twice as smart,” he quipped.  The long-suffering agents had to listen to him compulsively whispering into his lapel mic relaying his every move.  “I’m walking into the building now,” he breathlessly and uselessly informed them on more than one occasion.

The narrative moves at a sprightly pace with Damon steering his paunch in front of him as he waddles cheerfully along.  Like any other good executive, he tries perpetually to please everyone in sight.  He can’t refrain from telling every new acquaintance that he was orphaned at ten but was fortunate enough to be taken in by a wealthy man who ran an amusement park.  He read an article once, he confides in his voice-over narration, while he was at Cornell.  (That’s an Ivy League school, he adds, just in case we aren’t sure.)  This article pointed out that people are naturally sympathetic to orphans, especially if said orphan has made good.  The story’s just perfect.

Soderbergh has Damon keep up this inanely irrelevant narration throughout the film, creating a disconnect between what we’re hearing and what we’re seeing.  Whitacre only occasionally explains what’s on the screen.  He prefers sharing with us his enthusiasm for desirable products and self-help fads.  He tells us he has well over two million frequent-flier miles and that he tries to do daily isometric exercises at his desk or during meetings.  We learn his preferences in automobiles, hair products, and soaps.  He explains why he likes Italian ties better than American ones.  In fact, he’s a walking Consumer Reports.  Where is this going, you wonder?  What is the point?  The point is that there is no point, beyond the creature comforts to which Whitacre is devoted.  He has no purpose other than consuming.  He’s all about bulking up with as much of the good life as possible.  Honor, integrity, purpose are merely words.  But a shower gel—that you can feel in your hands!
Then things become stranger and stranger as the FBI handlers begin to see another side of Whitacre, which begins to emerge as if from behind a cloud of product placements.  And this side threatens to compromise their case.  The growing dismay on the agents’ faces is at once pitiable and tremendously funny.  Whitacre turns out to be that most sinister of operatives, a genuine American innocent.

If you’re unfamiliar with the case, this is about as much as you’ll want to know before seeing the film.  Afterward, you might want to pick up Soderbergh’s source, Kurt Eichenwald’s book The Informant, originally published without Soderbergh’s mocking exclamation point.  Soderbergh has made good use of Eichenwald’s work, but there’s much more to the ADM/Whitacre story in the book, and it’s all quite pertinent to our understanding of American commercial culture.

This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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