The story is not simple. Nor should it be. Mark Whitacre is Matt Damon with a bad hairpiece and a moustache. He's a charlatan, and, like any good charlatan, his act is based on a lot of truth-telling; a seeming patsy who nuttily professes then gets scared stiff and thinks his pardners in the FBI won't notice how he's been living it up. He's both a good-natured corporate whistleblower and a shameless embezzler: a hero in his own story and a villain in the stories of many others. As to what he is in The Informant!, it's less a matter of debate that indefinability. He's trouble.
What's distinguished Steven Soderbergh as a director from all of his contemporaries (and at this point that list includes Spanish-language filmmakers as much as English-language ones, and studio regulars as much as independents) is his willingness to think things through. It's not an omnivorous intellectualism; it's a sense of responsibility. Give him a project or a script and he'll do his darndest to figure out how a movie like that should be shot, edited, cast and directed. So to make a film about a man like Whitacre, he has modelled himself on the character: The Informant! begins with a question ("Why is lycene production down?") that seems easy to answer, and then, instead of giving that answer, it keeps raising more and more questions, none of them ever resolved. As the film gets further from comedy, why do more and more comedians appear in the cast? If at the beginning we completely understood the respect between Damon and Scott Bakula's FBI agent, why does their relationship seem more and more mysterious as the movie keeps going? If at first Damon seemed like a buffoonish do-gooder, why does he seem both more wronged and more callow than ever in the final scene?
The Informant! is like some ridiculous trial where every exhibit and witness contradicts the last one. We see and hear things happen very clearly; Soderbergh's images here are corporate-photo crisp, subtly mundane, a bit like the visual evidence in Find Me Guilty. So much here is familiar, with fonts, pacing, color and even the score borrowed from a very specific strain of 1970s American film, yet all of these elements are inscrutable in the context of the movie. Can anyone in their right mind deliver a verdict? At the end, a judge pops up, becoming the first character to make a statement about Damon instead of questioning his actions. An odd sensation: you simultaneously understand the judgement and feel as though it could only be the product of myopia.
In most multiplexes, The Infromant! will preceded by a trailer for Michael Moore's upcoming Capitalism: A Love Story. Moore intends to show the American people the crooks who fleeced them. It's an uneasy notion, but maybe it's wrong to think of corporate culture in terms of verdicts. It is, after all, American culture. Damon delivers his narration as though reading from a Nicholson Baker novel, maybe The Mezzanine, rattling off the sort of things a person thinks about in a corporate world: ties, good locations for shopping malls, Michael Crichton novels. His private jet looks just like the one in The Girlfriend Experience. He's a family man and a thief. It all looks easy, but it isn't. We're all complicit; most people are both cops and robbers. What The Informant! knows is that "crook" is just a word. In capitalist society, it can be applied to everyone.