KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s reality. And then there’s Hollywood reality.
The difference was only too clear to FBI Special Agent Bob Herndon as he settled into his seat at an Olathe, Kan., movie theater the other day to watch “The Informant!,” the new Matt Damon film directed by Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh.
This was more than a movie to Herndon. It was his story.
And he was concerned about what Hollywood had done to it.
In the early ‘90s, Herndon — portrayed in the movie by comic Joel McHale — was one of two FBI agents who handled Mark Whitacre, an executive for agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland who volunteered to help the feds convict his co-workers of price fixing.
Whitacre, whom Damon plays with comic abandon, turned out to be much more than a whistle-blower. He wore an FBI wire into closed-door sessions with his ADM bosses, but even while providing evidence that would end up convicting several of his firm’s executives, Whitacre was involved in scams of his own. He lied to the feds, he lied to his bosses, and, while working with the FBI, he embezzled more than $9 million.
The informant would end up spending more time in prison than the co-workers he turned in.
The convoluted case was laid out in minute detail in “The Informer,” Kurt Eichenwald’s nonfiction book published in 2000. Herndon had the FBI’s permission to talk numerous times with the author.
Now it was Hollywood’s turn. Unlike the book, the movie was made with almost no input from Herndon.
All Herndon could hope for was that the film would spread a message about corporate fraud and greed.
But as the lights went down and his wife, Raelene, took his hand, the FBI agent prepared himself for the possibility that his big-screen portrait might not be all that flattering.
“A Secret Service agent attended my church,” Herndon, 46, recalls of his boyhood in Kansas. “An FBI agent lived a few doors down. I always dreamed of joining the FBI.”
After graduating from high school, he studied accounting at the University of Kansas and joined a CPA firm. But in 1986 he applied to the bureau, then looking for numbers crunchers to handle white-collar crime, and was accepted.
Herndon’s first posting was in New Orleans, where he was part of a team that brought down a corrupt jurist. “It was the first time the FBI wired the courtroom of a federal judge,” he said.
He was working in the Springfield, Ill., office when he became part of the ADM investigation. He worked closely with agent Brian Shepard (played by Scott Bakula) who had first been contacted by Whitacre.
For several years Herndon and Shepard directed Whitacre’s efforts, making sound or video recordings of almost 200 conversations between their informant and targets.
They were yanked from the case after ADM’s attorneys aired an anonymous accusation — Herndon thinks it was from Whitacre himself — that among other things the agents had appropriated some of Whitacre’s embezzled money.
“That caused an internal investigation,” Herndon said. “After that Mark named us in a lawsuit claiming we hit him with a briefcase, but the details were so unbelievable we were laughing about it.”
Still, the agents resented not being able to complete their investigation. Vindication finally came with the conviction of the ADM officials.
“One after another the guilty verdicts came in. Brian and I felt validated. The jurors were affirming that we weren’t some bad guys, that we’d done our job.”
Herndon is a straight arrow. Father of three. Highly religious. And, of course, he’s with the FBI.
He doesn’t have much in common with the type of people who make movies. Or at least that’s what he thought.
Several things have happened over the last couple of years to change that perception.
Two years ago his son Matthew, then 11, was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain aneurysm. While the family gathered in a Dallas hotel room on the eve of Matthew’s big surgery, the phone rang.
It was Matt Damon. He wanted to talk to Matthew.
At that point filming on “The Informant!” hadn’t begun. But Damon had been cast and knew all about Herndon. Somehow he’d heard about the family’s crisis.
“Matthew is talking on the phone and at one point he puts his hand over the receiver and asks, ‘Who’s Matt Damon?’” Herndon recalled with a laugh. “After his successful surgery he watched the ‘Bourne’ movies, and of course now he’s a Damon fan.”
Then, while “The Informant!” was in production last summer in Los Angeles, Herndon was invited to bring his family for a day on the set.
“Matt Damon spent about an hour and a half with us,” he said. “He talked about possibly moving to Dallas or Kansas City, getting away from Miami and finding a different sort of place to raise his kids.”
Herndon also got to know the actor who was portraying him.
“Joel told me he played the part straight up. No comedy. I asked him, ‘Are you sure you’re playing me as a good, boring FBI agent?’ And he said he was.
“We’ve been in contact off and on ever since,” Herndon said. “Joel came here last February for a comedy event and invited my friends and family backstage. He’s a really top-notch guy. Good family values. Spent most of the time talking about his kids and wife.”
As the lights came up after the “Informant!” screening, Herndon sat for a moment deep in thought.
So what did he think?
“Mostly, I think they got it right,” he said. “I never felt like they took a cheap shot.”
Several scenes, in fact, used dialogue taken directly from the surveillance tapes Herndon and Shepard had made.
The film is played for farcical effect, but the agent said that was a valid approach, especially since the real-life Whitacre had so many idiosyncrasies.
“During the investigation we always thought we were a day away from seeing the case ruined,” Herndon said. “It’s always that way when you’re working with informants. They can decide at any moment they don’t want to do it anymore.”
The agent says he thinks Whitacre suffered from a mental ailment and had told so many lies that he no longer knew what was true and what wasn’t.
The film also finds much comic mileage in Whitacre’s luxurious head of hair.
“We agents would have discussions about whether that was really Mark’s hair or a rug,” Herndon said.
They got their answer when they attended Whitacre’s sentencing. The convicted embezzler was bald.
“Brian always claimed it wasn’t a wig. So I leaned over and said ‘I win.’ “
After the conclusion of the ADM and Whitacre cases, Herndon returned to his hometown. Among the cases he has worked since then was that of Robert R. Courtney, the pharmacist convicted of giving patients diluted cancer drugs.
Herndon and his wife left Kansas City International Airport Monday evening to join the “Informant!” cast at the film’s New York premiere.
“This time I can just relax and enjoy the movie,” the agent said. “And we’re going to a party afterward. George Clooney is an executive producer, and we’re hoping he shows up.”