Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA, 2009. Warner Bros., Participant Media, Groundswell Productions, Section Eight, Jaffe / Braunstein Enterprise. Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald. Cinematography by Steven Soderbergh. Produced by Howard Braunstein, Kurt Eichenwald, Jennifer Fox, Gregory Jacobs, Michael Jaffe. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Production Design by Doug J. Meerdink. Costume Design by Shoshana Rubin. Film Editing by Stephen Mirrione. Golden Globe Awards 2009. Toronto International Film Festival 2009.
No amount of knowledge about corporate greed or shady business conspiracies could possibly prepare you for this outrageous tale, based on a true story. Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is a high-ranking executive for ADM, a food company that has developed a corn by-product called Lysine that, for those of us who don’t already know, is found in just about every food you eat (and a few non-edible products as well). When Whitacre is pressured by his superiors to explain why sales have been declining, he informs them that he knows for a fact that their company has a mole who has been leaking information to the Japanese. When the FBI question him further on the subject, Whitacre reveals that ADM has been involved in a multinational, price-fixing conspiracy that he has privileged access to observing; his hope is that by revealing this information and getting his bosses fired, the corporation’s gratitude will place him in the company’s top seat. Whitacre is only too enthusiastic to help the FBI get solid evidence on his colleagues, which really should have been their first sign, because from that point begins a shell game of facts and fictions as a genuine case of white-collar crime is thrown right up against a man’s singularly quixotic personality, leaving the feds to sort out which end is up. Steven Soderbergh’s second whistle-blower film, eight years after the highly enjoyable Erin Brockovich, bites off a little more than it can chew as far as plotting goes: the true story behind all of this is fascinating, but the film rushes through its points too quickly, throwing endless dialogue at you that takes more time to absorb than is given. The performances are all strong, especially a confounded Scott Bakula as FBI agent Brian Shepard, but both Soderbergh and Damon perform their duties with an unappealing flavour of smugness. Yes, capitalism is evil and corporations are greedy, but only someone who doesn’t benefit from the excesses of either can presume to sit in such harsh judgment of others. Soderbergh makes cartoons of his characters as if he were visiting from another planet, lacking any of the gleeful sympathy that would have made the film, and Damon’s cypher of a character, more amusing (think of Bunuel’s ability to tear apart Catholicism while at the same time admitting his hopeless adoration of its trivialities). Damon does a terrific job of putting across Whitacre’s nearly insane level of whimsy and optimism, but of course we’re expected to be more impressed that he gained a few ounces to make himself look like a normal American.