History in the Movies:’The Informant!’

 "Based on a true story." Most fact-based films open with that declaration. But The Informant!, Steven Soderbergh's film about Mark Whitacre, a corporate whistleblower turned FBI informant, adds a little twist to the familiar claim.

"While this is based on a true story," the film begins, "certain characters are composites, and some dialogue has been dramatized. So there."

Soderbergh's jaunty "So there!" is a clever reminder not to take his black comedy too seriously. But strangely enough, despite the film's farcical tone, Soderbergh gets a lot of the story right, and hews pretty closely to the details in Kurt Eichenwald's The Informant, the well-researched book about Whitacre's adventures with the FBI.   

But since even good films stretch the truth a bit, here's a guide to separate the fact from the fiction.  

Q.  How did Whitacre, a highly-paid executive with Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) end up working with the FBI to bust his company for their illegal practices?

A. As the film shows, Whitacre (played by Matt Damon) set the whole plot into motion accidentally. He told his bosses that a Japanese competitor was sabotaging ADM. The company called in the FBI to investigate, much to Whitacre's chagrin, since -as we learn later-he had concocted the sabotage story as cover for his division's poor performance.

When an FBI agent showed up to investigate the (non-existent) sabotage, Whitacre ended up instead spilling the beans to him about ADM's egregious — and thoroughly illegal –price-fixing.   

Did Whitacre do it to divert attention from his sabotage lie? Or because his conscience over ADM's practices was bothering him? Or was it because his wife insisted he ‘fess up? It's not clear. But once he began cooperating with the FBI and secretly recording his colleagues' conversations, Whitacre seemed to become intoxicated with the intrigue and James-Bondness of it all.

Q. The film shows Whitacre ostentatiously narrating while wearing a wire. Did that happen?  

A. That's a bit exaggerated. The first time he wore a wire, Whitacre did narrate a bit ("I am about to enter the building,")  and greeted people by their full names ("Hello, Terrance Wilson,") but he stopped after the FBI warned him to.

Q. A funny scene from the film shows him fiddling with the tape recorder in his briefcase during a key meeting. Was that true?

A. It was. In a crucial 1993 price-fixing meeting between ADM executives and their Japanese competitors, Whitacre's hidden tape recorder suddenly began making clicking noises. Panicked, Whitacre opened his briefcase and fumbled to fix the recorder. The FBI agents watching the videotape in a nearby room were horrified, but the other meeting attendants were chatting among themselves and somehow never noticed.

Q.  Whitacre indiscreetly tells people about his secret work with the FBI in the film. Did he really do that?

A. Yes, and it infuriated the FBI agents. Whitacre confided in a number of his subordinates at ADM, claiming later it was to keep them "from getting scared" when the FBI raided ADM's offices.

Whitacre also, for reasons never clearly explained, confessed to his gardener, Rusty Williams. Williams testified later that Whitacre told him about his informant work for the FBI, and boasted that he would soon be at the helm of ADM. "Just call me 014," Whitacre had said to him. "Because I'm twice as smart as 007."  

Q. Was Whitacre naïve enough to think that he could one day end up running ADM, even after cooperating with the FBI in their investigation of the company?

A.  Apparently so. Whitacre frequently told skeptical FBI agents that after ADM's other key executives were busted for price fixing, the board of trustees would turn to Whitacre to save the company.

Even Whitacre's wife thought it was a pipe dream, according to Eichenwald's account. When her husband described how he could ascend the ADM ladder after the FBI investigation became public, Ginger looked at him in disbelief.

"Mark," she said. "Are you an idiot?"

Q. Was Whitacre quite so, well, crazy?

A.  The film exaggerates some of his oddities for comic effect. But Whitacre himself, after viewing the film, apparently told Soderbergh that his portrayal was "very accurate." And FBI agent Bob Herndon, who spent years working with Whitacre during the investigation, concurred in a recent interview that the film captured Whitacre's idiosyncrasies.

"Mostly, I think they got it right," he said. "I never felt like they took a cheap shot."

Q. Was Whitacre actually bipolar, as the film suggests?  

A. Hard to say. He claimed he was, and was briefly hospitalized for manic-depressive disorder. But some of his critics argued that Whitacre wasn't sick; he was just a sociopathic liar.

There's even disagreement over Whitacre's suicide attempts (he had a few, which the film glosses over.) Did he really try to kill himself? Or did he fake suicide to gain sympathy? Only Whitacre knows for sure.  

Q. Where can I find more information?

A. Check out Eichenwald's The Informant, on which the film is based. It's a terrific read.   

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