Large, shadowy organizations have always made great movie villains. And as far as shady organizations go, corporations are especially useful. They are often used to embody much of the impotent anger we as individuals feel from time to time in a world in which they seem to have all the money and power, and we have none.
This villain-hero relationship has given rise to the "whistle-blower" film, a subgenre exemplified by movies like "The Firm," "The Insider" and "Veronica Guerin." Some are more action-oriented and some are more dramatic, but the common thematic thread is that corporations are greedy and callous while brave, hardworking individuals are "? even if they get confused from time to time "? essentially forces for the greater good.
"The Informant!" seems, at first, to be this type of movie. It stars Matt Damon ("Ponyo") as Mark Whitacre, an earnest, Midwestern type of guy with a wife, 2.5 kids, a game room and all the other trappings of a stereotypical suburban nuclear-family life. A bioengineer for large food-processing corporation ADM, he has been promoted to the "business side" of the company as a vice president. ADM spends a lot of its resources trying to figure out how to put more corn in the world's food products.
Whitacre is in charge of figuring out how to engineer production of the amino acid lysine from corn, which ADM will then use to create larger, juicier chickens; shrimp; and other comestibles.
Things are not going well; the cultures are consistently infected with a virus, despite Whitacre's best efforts. He tells his boss, Mick (Tom Papa, "Bee Movie"), that an employee at a competing company has revealed there is a mole at ADM who has been sabotaging operations. The connection wants $10 million to reveal his identity.
This triggers a visit from FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula, TV's "Enterprise"), who comes to tap Whitacre's phone. While Shepard is at Whitacre's house, Whitacre reveals that ADM is involved in price-fixing with its competitors, who are collectively fleecing the world's corn-consuming public out of billions. He thinks ADM will use him as a fall guy if it gets out, so he wants to turn whistle-blower to save his family.
While the basic scenario contains all the trappings of the lone-man-against-the-evil-corporation-style movie, what follows is a sort of farce that turns that template on its ear. Whitacre wears a wire for the feds, taping hundreds of hours of price-fixing meetings with competitors around the world. Shepard and his partner Special Agent Bob Herndon (Joel McHale, TV's "Community") develop a relationship with Whitacre over the next few years, becoming increasingly more like friends than like agents.
At times, they play therapists as Whitacre goes through bouts of anxiety over what he's doing, interspersed with periods in which he acts like a secret agent, taking unnecessary risks and putting the operation in jeopardy.
Despite his inconsistent behavior, Shepard and Herndon build their case and wind up raiding ADM and arresting most of its top executives. In most whistle-blower movies, this would be either the beginning or the end, but in "The Informant!," the intrigue is just getting started.
Whitacre isn't what he seems, and he continues to surprise. Like a Russian nesting doll, he turns out to be one lie inside another. As each layer is revealed, another facet of Whitacre's life collapses in on itself.
While undoubtedly entertaining, it isn't entirely clear what director Steven Soderbergh ("Che") is trying to accomplish here. The musical score is composed by Marvin Hamlisch ("The Mirror Has Two Faces"), who employs sunny horns, strings and percussion throughout, creating a sort of 1970s-era game-show feel for the proceedings. One gets the impression the music is there to serve as either the theme for Whitacre's imaginary life, or possibly as a commentary on the essential cheesiness of corporate culture in general. Like many of the events in Whitacre's world, it's not entirely clear what purposes are being served, and why.
It's possible that "The Informant!" feels like it has an ambiguous narrative because it's based on a true story. Life doesn't have neat plot arcs or clearly defined character types, and giving it clean lines is all but impossible.
Still, the bottom line seems to be that while corporations are greedy and callous, individuals are, too. And even an individual out for "justice" against wrongdoing can still have his own, less-than-noble agenda.