Steven Soderbergh's latest directorial effort is The Informant!, based on the real life story of Mark Whitacre, the highest ranking executive to ever play the role of whistle blower when he cooperated with an FBI investigation in the early/mod-1990's. The film admits right up front that it is based on a true story, so even if you went in not knowing, you know before the film begins. The kicker is that while the we get the usual spiel about the movie being based on actual events, with some characters and situations dramatized for effect, the spiel closes with "So there!" It is a brilliant finish to get you ready for the film and give you a hint to the tone, if you hadn't already gotten a clue from the trailers.
Looking at Soderbergh's filmography you will see an interesting pattern. He will make a film targeted to a mainstream audience and then make a couple that are more for the arthouse. Recently, it seems that you get an Ocean's film with the likes of Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience in between. Then you get something like The Informant!, which is easy to advertise as a mass appeal film, with Matt Damon and moments that are reminiscent of the Ocean's series. By the time you are actually in the theater and realize it is not quite what you expected, it is too late. What is hoped for at this point is that you like what you see.
I have heard more than a few people say they did not get it and it was "stupid" and "confusing." It would be easy to write them off as those who don't "get it" but that would be much too dismissive, as they may have a point. The film does require your attention, but it also requires some work on the part of the audience. It, more or less, picks one point of view from which to deliver the majority of the information and it is not necessarily a reliable voice of reason.
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon, who put on a lot of weight for the role) is an ivy-league educated scientist who has risen to high levels at Archer Daniels Midland, a large company based in Illinois. While working on a particularly troubling project, combined with unofficial talks with competitors, a case of espionage comes to light. The FBI swoops in with Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) taking the lead.
Mark cooperates with Shepard to point of clearing himself in the process. The problem is that he knows more than he initially lets on. As Shepard is going to leave, Mark, at the urging of his wife, tells Shepard about a global price fixing scam. This puts Mark right back in the middle as the FBI urge him to wear a wire and collect as much information as he could.
Problems arise as Whitacre exhibits some odd behavior. Of course, we get hints of this early on as Whitacre's mind will go off on other tangents that really have nothing to do with what is going on, and keeps us from hearing what could be important information.
The film, written by Scott Z. Burns based on Kurt Eichenwald's book, starts strong as the fascinating character of Mark Whitacre is developed and the story begins its complex and winding road. The problem is that as the story moves forward and the layers of lies are peeled away, the tale loses steam. The screenplay becomes less interesting, ultimately dragging a little as we reach the end.
The best part of the film is Matt Damon. It does not seem to matter what he does, he always makes it interesting. He is funny, charming, awkward, deceptive, and deluded all at the same time. Particularly early on, he is fascinating to watch.
Bottomline. This is a good, not great, movie. It has solid direction, good performances, and a look that feels accurate to the depicted time. I enjoyed the time I spent with it and feel it is well worth checking out, I just do not see myself revisiting it all that often.