Some may remember The Informant! as a comical-crime film about a guy who became an FBI informant to save himself when his company came under investigation, only to be scandalized in the process. However, The Informant! is based on the true story of Mark Whitacre, former president of the BioProducts Division at ADM (Archer Daniels Midland), who was the highest-level corporate executive in US history to become a whistleblower for the FBI. After cooperating as a witness for three years, Whitacre was found out for embezzling $9.5 million during the same time he assisted in the federal investigation on ADM for price-fixing.
The mid-1990s saw the rise of what was known as the lysine price-fixing conspiracy. This conspiracy was established to raise the price of lysine, an amino acid that’s added to animal feed. Five companies were involved, including ADM, Japanese companies Ajinomoto and Kyowa Hakko Kogyo, and Korean companies Sewon American Inc. and Cheil Jedang Ltd. Together they managed to raise lysine prices to 70% within their first nine months of cooperation. The foreign companies made a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice Antitrust Division from September through December 1996. Each Asian firm pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain to aid the investigation against ADM.
As a result, the investigation yielded a record of $105 million in criminal fines and a $70 million fine against ADM. The firm was also fined an additional $30 million for its participation in a separate conspiracy in the critic acid market and had to pay a total fine of $100 million. After a ten-week jury trial, three executives from ADM were convicted in September 1998. Buyers of lysine in the United States and Canda sued and recovered $80 to $100 million in damages from the five cartel members, and ADM paid $38 million to settle mismanagement suits by its shareholders.
This film was directed by Steven Soderbergh, whose previous resume included the Ocean‘s trilogy and Erin Brockovich, and written by Scott Z. Burns. Kurt Eichenwald wrote and published a nonfiction novel of the same name in August 2000. The film stars Matt Damon as Mark Whitacre, who lives in the nice suburban neighborhood in Decatur, Illinois with his wife and three kids. We get to see two events. In the first event we see Whitacre as a company man who becomes an informant for the FBI, thinking he’ll take over ADM once “the bad guys” are put away. In the second event, Whitacre’s actions seems to fall apart and everything is finally revealed. Turns out he suffered from bipolar disorder.
As we follow Whitacre, it’s clear that something isn’t right from the start. He repeatedly provides FBI agents Brian Shephard (Scott Bakula) and Robert Herndon (Joel McHale) with false information and then comes clean about it later. We get to hear his rambling thoughts throughout the film, which oscillate between irrelevance, defensiveness, and grandiosity. As the lies and contradictions continue to build, his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), the FBI, and even Whitacre’s lawyers stop trusting his word as no one can really tell what’s real and what’s not anymore. His own infractions soon come to light and Whitacre ends up going to jail with a lengthier sentence than his partners-in-crime.
By the end, we see that Whitacre made a plea for a presidential pardon and seems to have received psychological help. When he tells Herdon that he accepts responsibility for his embezzlement of $11.5 million (previously stated as $9.5 million) and then claims to not know the exact amount, neither Herndon nor the audience is left with any faith in his reformation.
Not only did the film and Mark Whitacre himself shed light on the crime of corporate espionage/sabotage, but also how not all problems, like mental illnesses, are visible. The film came in at #2 behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and grossed over $41 million at the box office. It earned a fresh rating of 80% from Rotten Tomatoes and a 4 out of 4 from Roger Ebert.
In conclusion, The Informant! is an excellent film. Matt Damon did an outstanding job portraying both sides of Whitacre and Soderbergh’s style of rich, urban settings, natural lighting, and fast-paced working environments really shined through. Although the film is supposed to be a comedy, don’t expect any hard laughs. The issues this film depicts are very serious and may come off as awkward or even uncomfortable at times. One thing I can take away from this film is to trust your gut feeling. If something seems off about something, then more than likely you may be right.