Like some of the food made with the substances produced by the corporation at the heart of this story, this movie is pleasant but leaves a sour aftertaste. It is inspired by the real-life story of one of the most massive cases of corporate corruption and crime in US history. Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM) paid the then-record antitrust fine of $100 million and its top executives went to jail because of a global conspiracy to fix prices and production in violation of antitrust laws. None of this would have been uncovered without the cooperation of a top executive named Mark Whitacre. This film’s decision to present the story as farce and to focus on Whitacre and his flakier qualities is entertaining but unsatisfying.
Matt Damon plays Whitacre with an extra 30 pounds and a toupee that looks like a bird’s nest. He is a PhD but he is less an absent-minded professor type than a free-association, mind-like-a-pinball machine type, and we are privy to his thoughts as they go off in an almost random assortment of directions, often missing the point of what is going on around him as he muses about various questions and reassures himself. When the FBI is brought in to investigate an extortion attempt he reported, Whitacre tells the agent (“Star Trek’s: Enterprise’s” Scott Bakula) that he knows about something much bigger. This leads to an undercover operation spanning years and continents as Whitacre wears a wire to tape more than 200 conversations. He was one of the highest-ranking corporate officials ever to work as an informant. He was also embezzling millions of dollars and having a breakdown, possibly as a result of the stress of leading a double life.
Director Steven Soderburgh also gave us a moving drama about the feisty heroine Erin Brockovich, whose failings were quirky and endearing. Now he brings us a story about another real-life whistleblower presented as farce, with a bright, sit-com-y score by Marvin Hamlisch and the pacing and fonts of a 70’s comedy, familiar faces from television (including Tom and Dick Smothers), and seems to do everything possible to keep us from caring about the squirrelly main character. Whitacre, an accomplished man with a PhD (and now has several post-graduated degrees) who was a rising star at the company, comes across as clumsy, clueless, and narcissistic. We hear his random thoughts about an incongruous variety of topics. They come across as the musings of a doofus but they also show us his scientific curiosity and analytic distance. And we see how both contribute to his success and his downfall.
The film touches on the incongruity of his being sentenced to a jail term more than twice that of the executives responsible for crimes many times the order of magnitude in size and impact, but the reaction it seems to expect from us is a “what do you expect” rather than any sense of outrage. Once again, those who steal a small amount from hundreds of millions of people receive nominal consequences while those who steal a substantial sum from one place take the fall. Economists estimated that the cost to American citizens of one price-fixing case involving electrical equipment in 1961 was greater than all of the robberies of that year. The cost of the ADM price-fixing, based on the explicit view that “the customers are the enemy,” is incalculable. This film perpetuates the lack of understanding about these crimes in favor of cheap shots at the life-shattering impact of the investigation and the enabling, even exploitive behavior of the law enforcement officials who used him and then left him to deal with the consequences. Worst of all, it leaves us with a feeling of smug superiority when it should be illuminating the kind of thinking from both corporate and government officials that led us to the current financial collapse.