Telling Half the Story in The Informant!

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by Marc T. Newman [critic]

Hollywood likes to traffic in the seedy. Redemption stories only seem to appear when “redemption” means pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Studios have had a couple of great chances to talk about real redemption through biographies lately, but they are unwilling to rise to the occasion. In Walk the Line, the filmmakers focus on Johnny Cash as a free-wheeling hell raiser, but give only a tiny nod to the role played by the church in his redemption. It completely ignores his later life, when he turned to Christ and recorded some of the most haunting gospel music ever laid down.

It is far too early to write the memoirs of Mark Whitacre, the subject of the bio-pic The Informant! Whitacre was the youngest division president ever at Archer Daniels Midland - a huge corporation. A biochemist by training, when a chemical process at the plant goes bad and the division starts losing piles of money, he concocts a sabotage story to cover his trail. And that happens draw in the FBI. Moving from the proverbial frying pan, Whitacre explains to FBI Special Agent Brian Sheppard that ADM is actually involved in international price fixing. Thus begins his multi-year stint as an undercover informant for the FBI, while simultaneously running the very company he is in the process of bringing down.

Without revealing too much, it is important to note that Whitacre is not the squeaky-clean do-gooder that his carefully crafted image suggests. Director Steven Soderbergh slowly reveals the ego- and avarice-driven nature of the man. Ultimately, Whitacre serves a stint in the pen. What keeps audiences laughing (though based on a true story, the film is shot as a comedy) is Whitacre’s utter cluelessness about his situation.

Like many other bio-pics, The Informant! ends with descriptions of where the main characters are today. For Whitacre, the twist is ironic. But it is the rest of the story, the part that Soderbergh leaves out, that is truly worth telling, though it does not lend itself to comedy. My guess is that Soderbergh did not think the revelation would play as well with his intended audience. While in prison, Whitacre had thoughts of suicide. Then he gave his life to Jesus Christ. But when I discovered that little tid-bit in the latest issue of World Magazine, it radically changed the way I viewed the film.

The laughter generated by the movie stems from our amazement that a guy so smart, so privileged, would allow himself to be caught up in so much wrongdoing. I suppose that egotistical filmgoers might rationalize and think that they would never have been stupid enough to get caught. Others, I hope, think that there but by the grace of God go I - maybe not on the same scale as Whitacre, but just as guilty of various sins.

Whitacre’s confession that his time in prison was integral to establishing his faith would have been a lesson worth enacting on the screen - even as a coda at the end of the film. Sometimes, people who are guilty curse their fate when they are caught, even blame God for allowing them to go down a dark road. But often it is the time we spend in darkness that enables our feeble eyes to see the light. Instead of having a fleeting voyeuristic laugh at Mark Whitacre’s self-inflicted troubles, perhaps a glimpse at his redemption through Christ would have more lasting value.

The Informant! is rated R for a substantial amount of boardroom profanity. ExileStreet

copyright 2009 Marc T. Newman

Marc T. Newman, Ph.D. is founder of MovieMinistry.com and is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to marc@movieministry.com

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