No ordinary informant
October 20, 2009 6:18 AM   Subscribe

The movie adaptation of Mark Whitacre's story, Steven Soderbergh's The Informant, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald was released last month. Whitacre's life belies easy explanation: a hugely important corporate whistleblower, at some point during the five years he spent informing on agribusiness behemoth Archer Daniels Midland Whitacre embarked on a massive embezzlement scheme that would see him imprisoned for nearly eight and a half years. To this day, the FBI remain divided on whether he is more hero or villain.

What is perhaps interesting about the movie, over and above the extraordinary details of Whitacre's downfall into mental illness and susbsequent release to resume married life as a successful businessman in the biogredients business, is that Soderbergh - who started work on the movie in 2001 after Ocean's Eleven - plays it as a comedy.

According to Soderbergh, at least, Whitacre likes the movie.

See previously on the blue. And also here.
posted by MuffinMan (19 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
the FBI remain divided on whether he is more hero or villain.

Because everyone knows there is no gray area there.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:36 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

ADM supposedly had one of the greatest - or just one of the most honest - business philosophies of all time - the company's chairman's internal view on markets was said to be:

"The competitor is our friend and the customer is our enemy."
posted by rhymer at 6:36 AM on October 20, 2009

Also, the episode "The Fix is In" from This American Life which triggered the development of the movie is available here from their archives. I can't speak to the book or the movie, but the radio version is compelling listening.
posted by jeremias at 6:42 AM on October 20, 2009 [5 favorites]

NPR did an encore presentation of a story they did on this guy. Unfortunately, doesn't appear the audio is online. It's a stranger than fiction world out there.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:42 AM on October 20, 2009

I saw the movie recently, and heard the This American Life story a year or more ago. The movie was enjoyable, but for dramatic effect I think the TAL version wins hands down.

For me, the movie suffered from an attempt to inject a comedic flavour into the story - it felt ill-fitting to me.
posted by SNACKeR at 6:45 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

The book by Kurt Eichenwald is very good. I have not seen the movie, but I was a little disappointed they made it into a comedy (from what I have read) because the story was pretty amazing and dramatic. Especially if you are interested in white collar crime or law enforcement, it's a great read.
posted by Mid at 6:58 AM on October 20, 2009

I should have previewed. Ha! It was the TAL episode I was thinking about. Whitacre is a complete nut.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:05 AM on October 20, 2009

The TAL episode was fascinating and exceptionally well told. In fact, it's about the best introduction to the story imaginable, in that it recreates the chain of events in a very surprising way for the listener.
posted by Miko at 7:14 AM on October 20, 2009

I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. To call it a 'comedy' is a little off, I'd say. It has some humor injected, as mentioned above.

What I liked best, though, is that there is a significant chunk of dialog that follows directly from what you hear on the FBI tapes.
posted by kingbenny at 7:33 AM on October 20, 2009

For what it's worth, Steve Salop has strongly recommended that everyone with a passing interest in antitrust see the film.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:35 AM on October 20, 2009

"To call it a 'comedy' is a little off"

Soderbergh's words, not really mine. [I went to the London premiere last night].
posted by MuffinMan at 7:41 AM on October 20, 2009

the line between comedy and drama for this is pretty thin. the casting is the only thing comedic about it, and everyone plays their roles pretty straight. i think the casting person deserves an award actually. the faces that show up throughout the story do something really special to the story's arc and how some of the developments unfold (sorry for the vagueness here)

its actually a really remarkable movie in the way it makes commercial collusion and dark money so banal and real. the longer we as a country let our banking loopholes stay open the more we are screwing ourselves...see ubs and obama's recent backdown on tax shelter reform
posted by lslelel at 7:57 AM on October 20, 2009

whether he is more hero or villain

He stole a bunch of money from a GMO-producing, plant-patenting, small-farmer-stomping agribusiness, and he ratted them out to the feds? I'll bet some people consider him a goddamn saint.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 8:14 AM on October 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't call Soderberg's film version a comedy, although it certainly highlights the absurdities in the tale. He adds a constant stream-of-consciousness voiceover from Matt Damon that will either work for you or won't, because it's a sort of nattering, discursive commentary on things, often straying quite far from the story at hand to meditate on oddball topic.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:20 AM on October 20, 2009

The thing that struck me most about the TAL episode was how rampant everyone who was involved in the case believes price fixing to be now that it's over. The fact that these guys had their ingredients in just about everything that is in the average American's kitchen, and walked into price fixing so easily, suggested that this was a very ordinary occurance.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:32 AM on October 20, 2009

Heard the TAL then saw the movie... loved it! It was a dark comedy if anything. And from what I understand from the TAL piece, there is no humor "injection", the humor is latent in the story itself, but Soderbergh may have featured some of the humorous absurdities (that were all true to life) and highlighted it a bit with "comedic" actors.

But, to those that know the story; can you honestly imagine this story as a gritty drama a la Donnie Brasco at ADM? THAT would be farcical bordering on absurd. Comedy is the only way to honesty turn the story into a coherent cinematic narrative.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 8:34 AM on October 20, 2009

"the casting is the only thing comedic about it"

I don't agree with that - much more comedic than the casting (which was excellent, BTW) was the enjoyable but anachronistic set decoration and art direction (felt more like '70s than '90s), the aforementioned voice over (unrelated banal musings that gave the impression the protagonist is an empty-headed fool), and the light music.

I think a humorous approach is a reasonable way to engage with this story, but the way it was done felt superimposed and superficial.
posted by SNACKeR at 10:06 AM on October 20, 2009

"...unrelated banal musings that gave the impression the protagonist is an empty-headed fool"

Except, I think that's what's going on in these kinds of folks heads. What could they possibly be preoccupied by if it's not narcissistic minutiae and materialistic fantasy?
It's not like they're cogitating on deep moral conundrums.

For anyone with even an elementary conscience, yeah, these people are fools. It's like watching any other comedy about dimwits, only here, they're short on morals instead of brains.
Which, really, I think is funnier and should be laughed at uproariously.
I mean - you bought all those cars? AH HA HA HA HA! You're such an idiot! Hey, get a bigger house whydontcha! Ha ha ha!
Buddy of mine is a medical student. He puts in serious time studying, etc. He's currently making time to collect food and cold weather gear for homeless folks. To me the disparity between intellect and moral reasoning is just as stark as between straight man and buffoon.

And yet, the guy with a garage full of cars he doesn't need, appreciate or drive, never thinks outside of himself, is - in many quarters - considered a 'success.'
THAT'S f'ing comedy.
And I think 90% of the film is laughing at that. Most audience members probably won't appreciate it because there are so few big pratfalls and rustics.
Meh. Something has to explain 'Larry the Cable Guy.'
posted by Smedleyman at 4:42 PM on October 20, 2009

I haven't seen the film yet, but the book is one of the best non-fictions I've ever read. If you are at all inclined to learn the real nuts and bolts of what happened or if you just like a good page-turner, I can't recommend it enough.
posted by dhammond at 3:48 PM on October 21, 2009

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