The Informant! recalls the excuses made by numerous underlings of authoritarian institutions over the course of the past century who have justified their exploitative practices by claiming they were just following orders.
"I like my hands. I think they're probably my favorite part of my body." Given to random musings, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) is plainly bored by his life as a corporate drone. Throughout The Informant!, his voiceover suggests he is yet another over-informed search engine junkie, like those featured in Microsoft's recent "Bing" advertisement blitz.
But Whitacre isn't merely some clueless naïf, and director Steven Soderbergh uses his internal ramblings to suggest something about the corporate mindset. He's in charge of Archer Daniels Midland's production of Lysine, a chemical additive necessary for many of the company's processed foodstuffs. But the lab is having problems producing Lysine that isn't tainted. The options are limited: will the corporation do the right thing or will it fudge test results and allow tainted Lysine into the processed food system, potentially sickening vast numbers of consumers? As Whitacre bounces merrily along, mulling over the life experiences of polar bears or the fish used to make sushi, the film indicts his bland business mindset, willfully ignorant of consequences or contexts.
The Informant! furthers its critique of corporate culture, and we get a different perspective on the capitalist zeitgeist, when Whitacre discovers that ADM has been the target of corporate espionage. He brings this to the attention of his bosses, who bring it to the attention of the FBI, not because they want the Feds' help, but because they are required to do so by law.
As the espionage investigation gets underway, Whitacre is increasingly and visibly distressed in the presence of FBI Special Agents Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Herndon (Joel McHale). It seems that ADM and Whitacre have also conspired with other multinational conglomerates to set the global production and pricing of Lysine. As ADM negotiator Terry Wilson (Rick Overton) remarks in one of the price-setting meetings, "The customers are our enemies, the competition is our friend." It's a succinct encapsulation of corporate interests and motivations.
Mark is so beset by guilt over his involvement in a federal crime that he feels he must come clean, and at the urging of his wife Ginger (Melanie Lynskey), he turns informant. As the price-fixing sting unravels, it becomes increasingly clear to Shepard and Herndon that Whitacre is not an entirely reliable informant, and not so innocent of wrongdoing himself.
When questioned, Whitacre asserts, "This is the way it's done." Because "everyone was doing it," he was only adhering to normative protocols. Here, The Informant! recalls the excuses made by numerous underlings of authoritarian institutions who have justified their exploitative or brutal practices by claiming they were just following orders, whether these come down from a National Socialist Party or Archer Daniels Midland.
To complicate the FBI's case and The Informant!'s consideration of corruption, at every critical juncture in the investigation, Whitacre informs Shepard and Herndon that he "hasn't been completely honest" with them, and goes on to reveal another detail about how he has been involved in not only the price-fixing, but his own personal schemes to accumulate ill-gotten financial gain. And as Whitacre's swindling of the company takes center stage, the skullduggery of ADM recedes. With each emerging detail of his cheating more audacious than the last, the film suggests that Whitacre is a brilliant, though probably insane, criminal in his own right. His internal ramblings become not evidence of willful corporate ignorance, but of Whitacre's unhinged mind.
There is no doubt that Archer Daniels Midland is guilty of global price-fixing, but the more compelling crime and story are Whitacre's self-aggrandizing and self-enriching activities. The insistence that these the company's crime and his are largely if not entirely unrelated is where The Informant!'s critique of corporatism ultimately fails.
In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Metropolitan Books, 2007), Naomi Klein writes, "Once you accept that profit and greed as practiced on a mass scale create the greatest possible benefits for any society, pretty much any act of personal enrichment can be justified as a contribution to the great creative cauldron of capitalism" (235). The personal enrichment shenanigans of Whitacre are the flip side of the capitalist coin of his employer's profit-maximizing swindles. It's this connection between personal greed and neoliberal capitalism that The Informant! fails to make.