INTERACTIVE (Rate the Review) . "The Informant!"

First off... suppress that laugh. This is serious.

For one thing, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is holding down a six-figure position and feels free to think of those under him as inferiors. Clearly, the office staff is a lesser breed and will never be in a position to enjoy the perks that he does. Well, when you're a VP for a major agribusiness corporation like Archer Daniels Midland, where it's logo-ized that "corn goes in one end and profit comes out the other," bragging rights come with the territory, the office, the big house, the totally supportive wife (Ginger, Melanie Lynskey). Not a bad life.

So why don't we hate this guy?

We know he's thinking these things thanks to the inner narrative derived from the pen of screenwriter Scott Z. Burns ("The Bourne Ultimatum") (from the book by investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald) (see left, above).

Whitacre has even more to boast about in that he was moved up into the executive ranks from his position as a company biochemist, adding a unique and vital expertise to executive deliberations, plans and conspiracies. There are just two problems. Mark is ambitious and where that leads him is what this story is all about. And, two, mark is capable of great mischief in his desire to advance himself. This is a man who isn't satisfied just sitting in his office crowing to himself. He'd rather be president of the firm.

Lesson to the firm: you don't put a man who looks at moral boundaries as so much feed for the cows into a position of responsibility. Especially one who is also delusional and as stable as a see-saw.

Take, for example, when, in November, 1992, he advises Mick Andreas (Tom Papa), his boss, that a that a drop in sales is due to a Japanese mole's sabotage of the company's lysine supply, a food additive critical to many market products. A mole?! This brings the FBI into the picture, in particular, agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula). He and his sidekick are keen on identifying the miscreant who is controlling the Lysine supply. But, here's where the case takes off on Mark's weirdness. As though in fear that the FBI will discover that he's the mole, he tips the agent that this mole thing is small potatoes compared to the bigger financial scandal that's been going on at Archer.

What the FBI should be investigating is Archer Daniels Midland's role in international price fixing.

This makes Mark Whitacre the highest-ranking executive in US history to turn whistleblower.

The sudden change of direction and scope of what he's dealing with staggers Shephard and he soon finds himself being led by the nose through a series of hoops by a world-class, certifiably obsessed snake charmer cloaked in earnest concern and modesty. From here on, the investigation turns on the layers of lies Whitacre is forced to strip off his fabricated balloon. But he keeps it afloat by wearing a wire for his new friends at the FBI, and delivers three years' worth of audio and video of company business meetings that only a high executive would be able to obtain. Unfortunately for the agency, they come to realize that the man they've gotten into bed with is a pathological prevaricator and the prosecutorial value of his tapes is anybody's guess.

As the patches of lies are exposed, more that has never been suspected about Whitacre, is revealed, some of it comes from Whitacre's internal dialogue that goes on for the length of the risingly suspenseful drama, some from actual admissions. Even wife Ginger didn't know that her beloved hubby was skimming funds to an offshore account. But the biggest surprise is that by revealing only as much as we needed to know, we, the audience, have also been taken in, and directed to more concerned with what will become of Whitacre as a consequence of his own actions and to care less about price fixing.

Making it so is the complete adoption of the character by Damon whose portrayal is one of consistency and masterful control. He's in George Clooney territory here, but that should come as no surprise since he plays a character that's a hallmark of director Steven Soderbergh's as exemplified in and of a piece with his and Clooney's "Michael Clayton," "Ocean's Eleven to Thirteen," and "The Good German." In Damon, Soderbergh has come up with another solid actor to play his not-quite everyman. Because of Damon's unexpected perfection with such a role, I'd be willing to say he puts Clooney in the dust!

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Don't be surprised if the heat around Damon for this performance builds to Oscar nom proportions.

If there were any doubts that Soderbergh holds the deed to the tone and structure of the corporate con-game satire, the hiring of Marvin Hamlisch to turn in the peppy period score should dispel them. Tracks like "Multi-Tasking," "Polygraph," and "Trust Me" are tunes that bridge the gap between the wages of crime and the lighter side of an unstable participant throwing a monkey wrench into the illicit gears of corporate power. It's a just-right tone that matches Damon's pitch-perfect one.

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, for a right good amusement, with a little something to think about. Just a trifle, mind, but one with enough craft and whimsy to keep you bouncing between light condemnation and heavy laughter.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Mark Damon (right) as ace corporate whistleblower.
Fixing things with the FBI.

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