The Informant! is based on the complex true story of biochemist turned whistleblower Mark Whitacre who was President of the BioProducts Division at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) as well as an informant for the FBI, which was investigating ADM for price fixing in the early 1990s. The film has an unusual narrative style and many scenes are either punched up by a 70s soundtrack or drowned out by Whitacre’s own meandering thoughts relayed in voiceover by actor Matt Damon. The viewer is given the immediate impression that Whitacre is not of stable mind.
As the film opens, Whitacre is explaining that nearly everything people eat contains corn and that his company, ADM, is involved in almost all meals. He is overseeing ADM’s production of lysine, an additive used in the commercial livestock industry, but there are problems and the company is losing money. Whitacre reveals that ADM is the victim of a saboteur and his source is a Japanese colleague who wants $10 million to name names. As a result, ADM asks the FBI to intervene and tap Whitacre’s business line at his home. When the agent Brian Shepard arrives at Whitacre’s house to install the recording device, Whitacre is prodded by his wife Ginger to “tell the truth.” Whitacre reluctantly asks to speak with Brian in the agent’s car because he believes that ADM has likely bugged the house and reveals to the agent that ADM has been engaged in price fixing with Japanese and Korean lysine producers. Brian informs his superiors that ADM is engaging in rampant corporate crime, but when ADM realizes that the FBI has in fact tapped more than just Whitacre’s business line, the company refuses further cooperation with the FBI and orders Whitacre to stop working with Brian.
Whitacre initially refuses to cooperate with the FBI and tells Brian that there is no longer any price fixing at the company, but Brian and another agent, Robert Herndon, confront him in a hotel and force him to admit that this isn’t the case. Whitacre also admits at this point that he invented the story of the mole and the Japanese extortionist in order to take some heat off himself and his failure to produce results. Whitacre decides to work with the FBI and becomes an informant. Initially, Whitacre explains that he wants to do the right thing but later he admits that he wanted to eliminate the other executives at ADM and take his place as President of the entire company. Whitacre begins to record tapes at work and in meetings he eventually submits over 200 recordings to the FBI which he narrates in an amusing way. He also shows the wire to his maintenance man at home and says that he’s Agent 0014 because he’s twice as smart as James Bond 007. The FBI eventually records video of ADM’s meetings with Japanese and Korean competitors with Whitacre’s help. The FBI is happy with the evidence that Whitacre supplies, but the Justice Department takes more convincing, though eventually everyone feels that the case against ADM is strong.
As a result of Whitacre’s evidence and after two years of work, the FBI launches a massive raid on ADM, seizing files and computers. Whitacre, in an effort to avoid casting suspicion on him as the informant, is confronted by the FBI in a restaurant with fellow executive Terry. The FBI advises Whitacre to tell his company that he is cooperating with the government and to secure his own lawyer as opposed to one the company will offer him. Once the raid is over, Brian learns that Whitacre compromised the raid by warning his secretary and two colleagues but continue with the case. The morning after the raid, Whitacre accepts a company lawyer who spends all day with Whitacre listening to the story of his work as an informant. The company lawyer advises Whitacre to get his own attorney and together they inform several executives that Whitacre will be cooperating with the FBI.
After the FBI raid, Whitacre’s story begins to unravel and his family is shunned by the corporate community. Whitacre’s new counsel is amazed by his story and advises him not to speak to anyone about the case. Somehow, the story is leaked to the Wall Street Journal and Whitacre continues to meet with the FBI agents Brian and Robert. Whitacre confesses to the agents that he has been taking kickbacks for several years the total amount Whitacre embezzles is never made clear in the film because he keeps changing his story, but the final figure he gives is over $11 million. In truth, Whitacre asked a colleague to set up a shell company that sent ADM bogus invoices that the company paid. The film does not clarify exactly how Whitacre’s scheme worked; probably because he has never explained the mechanism in detail himself. This revelation results in Whitacre losing his immunity.
When confronted with evidence of his embezzlement, Whitacre loses control of himself and it becomes clear that he is suffering from Bipolar Disorder, and his diagnosis will eventually become his defense. It is revealed that the story Whitacre tells of how he was adopted by a wealthy man when he was young is false. Whitacre also fakes a kidnapping attempt in an effort to gain public sympathy and continues to speak to the media despite the advice of his attorneys. He parts ways with the legal counsel when they refuse to file a lawsuit against Brian Shepard for assault and when Whitacre refuses to accept a plea bargain for 3-5 years in prison. Whitacre’s new attorney is portrayed as the worse kind of ambulance chaser. He confronts the FBI with evidence that his client was assaulted by Brian, who supposedly hit Whitacre with a suitcase. In order to bolster his case, Whitacre forges a letter from his psychiatrist but no one is fooled. Whitacre is confronted by Brian, who asks him why he keeps lying. Whitacre replies that he doesn’t know why and announces that he should go back to the hospital.
The film flashes forward to Whitacre’s sentencing. Whitacre delivers a meandering statement and admits that he is now on medication. The judge, however, finds no connection between having Bipolar Disorder and committing so many counts of fraud. Whitacre spends nearly 9 years in prison, three times what the executives his tapes help convict serve. He petitions, with the help of Agent Robert, for a presidential pardon and admits that he embezzled money in case he lost his job at ADM as a result of working as an informant. It was his severance. It is also suggested that Whitacre embezzled money to compensate for funds he lost when scammed by scammed by a group in Nigeria in an advance fee fraud. The pardon is refused, but Whitacre’s evidence was invaluable to one of the largest price-fixing cases in history and the government was able to collect millions in fines. Were it not for the fraud activity, Whitacre would be regarded as a hero. In the final scene, Whitacre is released from prison and is met by Ginger. The viewers are told that Whitacre is currently the COO of Cypress Systems.
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