Making the Grades
The old adage that the best stories are true couldn’t be better supported than by the real life experiences of Mark Whitacre (played by Matt Damon in this movie), infamously known as the highest-ranking executive to ever become a whistle blower in US history. The Informant! presents this period of Whitacre’s life, when he turned the boardroom tables on his employers at the food giant ADM (Archer Daniels Midland).
ADM deals in corn—lots of corn. “Corn goes in one end and profit comes out the other,” explains Whitacre in an ongoing “thought bubble” narration. From all this corn, ADM manufactures a food additive called lysine. But when a problem with the production process is discovered, the Ivy League educated science nerd blames it on corporate espionage caused by a Japanese competitor. That brings in FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula). But when Shepard meets with Whitacre, the insider immediately makes a stunning confession that the lysine issue is actually a plan to price fix the commodity worldwide.
Aside from wondering why the executive would put his high-flying career on the line, Shepard is overcome with the implications of the information. If it were true, it would lead to a massive investigation and exposure of a huge scheme. Asking if Whitacre would agree to wear a wire and assist the government in a covert operation, the bespectacled man seizes the opportunity with the gusto of a newly commissioned James Bond.
Director Steven Soderbergh (who directed the corporate killer Erin Brockovich in 2000) is known for a unique brand of quirkiness that can be seen in abundance here. Finding humor in a true story that leads to multiple arrests and the observation that Whitacre is suffering from a mental condition (in reality he suffers from a bipolar disorder) is difficult to do without becoming distasteful. Yet, this director pulls it off with panache, and even manages to keep the content in this MPAA R-rated movie down to a minimum, with the exception of language. (Even then, compared to Brockovich, this one is mild.) Viewers can expect to hear about nine sexual expletives, along with some other scatological and anatomical terms.
As this offbeat, talkative, legal thriller progresses, a very interesting lesson about honesty emerges. And if you aren’t familiar with Whitacre’s story, you might want to avoid reading archived news accounts until after you’ve seen the film. That way the revelations will be even more astonishing. While it’s not a family movie, it might be something parents could share with their oldest teens, provided they can tolerate the language. Of course, no one knows all of the little details of conversations that happened behind closed doors, yet this is one of those amazing tales that will leave you shaking your head and asking, “Was that guy for real?”
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Informant!.
Do you think the consequences brought upon Mark Whitacre by the legal system were appropriate? What were the mitigating factors in his life that may have motivated him to make the decisions he did?
Mark Whitacres story is still ongoing. A search of his name on the Internet will reveal a multitude of curious tidbits up to the present day. One of interest is from the Decatur Illinois Herald-Review (the community where Mark worked for ADM).
Mr. Whitacre has earned a PhD in Biochemistry from Cornell and is currently serving as COO and President of Operations for a California biotech company. He has also spoken candidly about the good and bad choices he made, saying, As I have shown, people can do heroic acts and make mistakes simultaneously. His website, www.markwhitacre.com includes many links and articles dealing with the actual story. Be sure to look at his thoughts on business ethics.
The book The Informant was authored by New York Times report Kurt Echenwald, who covered Mr. Whitacres case. Lately Mr. Echenwald has been in the press for issues relating to journalism ethics.