Business is a fickle thing. Anyone trying to eke out a living these days knows that. One minute you’re sitting behind your desk, figuring out how to work the word synergy into your next presentation, and the next you’re loading up your pens into a cardboard box for one last trip to company parking lot.
Often, these unexpected “career opportunities” aren’t your fault. Often, they’re not anyone’s fault.
But sometimes—well, sometimes they are.
In 1992, Mark Whitacre was the youngest divisional president in the history of the Archer Daniels Midland Company. The thirtysomething exec seemed to have it all: A beautiful wife, three children, eight cars and a $350,000 salary. His mind was quick. His ties were stylish.
Then one day he tells just one teensy-weensy little fib to his bosses—that Japanese competitors are sabotaging the company and want $10 million in shakedown money to stop—and things are never quite the same.
Oh, he tells the lie for the best of reasons. You see, Whitacre, who heads up ADM’s BioProducts Division, is having trouble making an exciting new compound called lysine do what it’s supposed to do. Whitacre’s bosses, anxious to see progress, demand immediate improvement. So Whitacre lies to create a little breathing room. (And conceivably $10 million extra from the company. But since he’s worked so hard anyway, who could begrudge him that?)
But ADM unexpectedly calls in the FBI to pursue the alleged Japanese saboteurs—a move Whitacre never anticipated—and they promptly tap his phone. And, while they’re hanging out at his house tapping wires (tap, tap, tap), Whitacre decides to ‘fess up about another issue that’s been sticking in his craw: that ADM is part of a worldwide conspiracy to fix the price of lysine.
“What a good listener,” Whitacre says after the FBI agent leaves his house. “You don’t meet one of those every day.”
The FBI quickly makes Whitacre an insider mole, and the whistle-blower starts taping dozens of shady corporate klatches. Over a span of three years, Whitacre accumulates enough evidence to send most of his bosses to jail. After which, he assumes, the board will naturally name him the company’s next president. (Never mind that he’s been receiving millions in corporate kickbacks himself for years.)
But then, the FBI informs Whitacre, “I think the corporate culture is going to change for you.”
Truer words were never spoken.
The Informant! is a comedy based on the real-life saga of whistle-blower/white collar criminal Mark Whitacre. And while the film likely takes some liberties with Whitacre’s story, it also uses his unlikely tale to reinforce some time-honored truths: Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t get cocky. Whitacre, alas, learns these lessons the hard way, as we’ll see.
Despite some glaringly obvious faults, Whitacre’s got some virtues, too—even though some of those virtues manifest themselves in counterintuitive ways. For example, Whitacre puts his career and freedom on the line to blow the proverbial whistle—and he does it at least in part for some reasonably good motives. He obviously cares about many of the people he works with, for example. And he’s willing to apologize for what he’s done wrong.
But Whitacre (as you’ve probably guessed) isn’t exactly the film’s moral core. That distinction belongs to his long-suffering wife, Ginger. She prods her husband to tell the FBI “the truth” (though, considering her hubby lies so often, we don’t know whether she knows what “the truth” actually is). Throughout this cinematic saga, Ginger stands by her man, through thick and thin.
Ginger’s support could be seen as simply enabling Whitacre’s bad behavior. But that’s not her intent. She loves her husband and desperately wants to believe in him—even when the rest of the world turns against him. And when he’s finally caught in an undeniable untruth—one that seems to demonstrate he’s less a liar and more a guy who needs serious psychiatric help—Ginger helps him see that it’s time to give up.
Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Whitacre starts medication and a lengthy prison sentence. He pays for his crimes (even as he initiates a request for a presidential pardon). And after he’s served more than eight years in prison, who should be waiting for him on the other side when he gets? Ginger, of course—with open arms.
An ADM exec worries that a woman’s pregnancy may somehow have an adverse effect on how her breasts look. Whitacre muses why, in Japan, there are vending machines that dispense the worn underwear of little girls.
Whitacre rips his coat and messes up his hair in an effort to make it look as if he was kidnapped. He tells his wife that some men threw him into a car and drove him around for 20 minutes. Later, Whitacre claims that an FBI agent hit him in the head with a briefcase—another fabrication.
About 10 f-words and five s-words. Jesus’ name is abused three times, and God’s is misused twice. We also hear a smattering of other curses, including “d–n” and “p—.” A crude slang term for a woman’s breasts is used a couple times.
Characters drink and smoke frequently. In court, Whitacre testifies that he’s taking medication for his bipolar disorder.
Whitacre has two big issues. The first, of course, is that he steals. Through complex kickback schemes, the executive admits to pocketing $500,000. No, make that $1 million. Or maybe $3.5 million. Or $5 million. Would you believe $7 million? How ’bout $9 million?
Which brings us to his second big issue: the lying. Even when he confesses, he can’t quite bring himself to tell the whole truth. And when he’s finally released from prison, he lets it slip that, well, maybe he actually managed to get away with something like $11 million. Or so.
The film depicts Whitacre as someone who can’t seem to help himself. He lies, it seems, about everything. And then he rationalizes his behavior. Once, he says, he told people that his parents were killed in an auto accident and he that was adopted by a wealthy amusement tycoon when he was 3. It’s a lie, of course, but he insists that he only told the lie once (another lie).
The Informant! is a thought-provoking dark comedy that imparts, between smirks and f-words, a handful of lessons.
In Mark Whitacre, we have a character who breaks all the rules we’ve known since kindergarten. He gets away with things for a while, it seems. But eventually Whitacre pays a steep price. By the time the credits roll, it’s clear that the filmmakers don’t approve of his stealing and lying. Whitacre serves as not only The Informant’s primary hero, but its foremost villain too. And we’re encouraged to take a dim view of his illicit activities.
This story also offers a fascinating study in character. Through Whitacre’s increasingly bizarre antics, we see how seemingly “nice” guys sometimes really aren’t … and sometimes end up in jail. We also get a glimpse at how our worst inclinations can be, with time and effort, redeemed. Without Whitacre, after all, the lysine racket would have continued unabated and most of us would be, as an FBI agent says, “victims of corporate crime before we finish breakfast.” Some of the folks who helped put Whitacre away even call him an American hero.
Talk like that, of course, would simply fuel the fictional Mark Whitacre’s crippling delusions. His greatest weakness might be his sense of self-importance—caused or augmented by his bipolar disorder and apparently fed by the entertainment industry.
If that last sentence sounds a bit heavy-handed, let me explain: Whitacre seems to believe he’s a character in a Michael Crichton or John Grisham novel. Accordingly, he sees himself as someone like Tom Cruise’s Mitch McDeere in The Firm. At other times, he believes he’s an American James Bond. When he shows off a “secret” tape recorder hidden in his briefcase to his gardener, Whitacre brags that the FBI made it especially for him—agent 0014. “I’m twice as smart as 007,” he quips.
All these media-fueled fantasies help sequester him from the truth obvious to everyone in the audience: The real 007 would never show his secret tape recorder to his gardener. Perhaps if the fictional Whitacre had been exposed to, well, The Informant!, he would’ve seen that he was simply an odd corporate exec who was in way over his head.
Then again, maybe someone twice as smart as 007 would ask for a few f-words to be edited out first.
Read Plugged In’s interview ( The Informant Speaks Out … Again) with Mark Whitacre.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.