In Steven Soderbergh’s film The Informant!, Matt Damon plays a pitch perfect Power of Ambition protagonist. Although some critics and arm chair commentators have complained that the movie moves too slow or is boring– I disagree.
I found the fevered unraveling of Matt Damon’s character and his deceptions and lies fascinating to watch. There are no big actions sequences, no shoot-outs and no chase scenes. If you come to the theater looking for an action-packed thriller like the Bourne series or the sharp witty seriousness of whistler-blower Erin Brockovich you will be disappointed. SEE THE TRAILER IN VIDEOS
This is a meticulous character study about the bland banality of corporate greed, the endless self-justification of scheming executives and the deluded self-seeking that’s eating away at the American Dream. The upbeat jangle of Marvin Hamlisch’s insistently perky elevator music underscores Whitacre’s deluded optimism. Steven Soderbergh deliciously deadpan comedy is a brilliant, subtle and painfully funny expose of the empty calories (literally and metaphorically) that’s been making America both overfed and undernourished at the same time.
Damon’s character is biochemist and ADM Division President, Mark Whitacre, the highest-ranking corporate official in U.S. history to expose wrong-doing in his own company. Whitacre sets off a massive FBI investigation into a global price-fixing conspiracy filled with secret meetings, concealed taping, wire taps, pay-offs and laundered money in Swiss and Bermuda off-shore accounts.
The object of all this intrigue is lysine, a sweet corn-based food additive, that is in nearly everything we eat or drink. As the movie opens, Whitacer glowingly describes the many lucrative uses of his company’s products (“corn goes in one end, profit comes out the other”). When a virus derails the company’s production of lysine, Whitacere is forced to come up with a solution fast.
He lies and tells management there’s a mole in the company, a corporate saboteur from a Japanese rival who wants a payoff to stop injecting the virus into the production line. Whitacre is shocked when the company calls in the FBI. Special Agents Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Bob Herndon (Joel McHale), catch Whitacre in the lie about the mole and the fun begins as Whitacre spins an even bigger story. He accuses ADM of fixing prices and divvying up the market for the corn-based food additive by ADM and other international corporate giants.
Whitacre begins an increasingly bizarre journey where lie enfolds lie. The dorky but puppy dog charming scientist with the floppy pompadour toupee likens his situation in ADM to Tom Cruise in The Firm. It’s an apt, if over-weaning, comparison to another Power of Ambition character. An even closer movie comparison would be to Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, a movie that also explores dark and twisted side of the Power of Ambition character.
Like Ripley, Mark Whitacre is a bland but eager to please guy who is obsessed with being liked and inflating his own importance. Whitacre believes he should be running ADM and uses the price-fixing conspiracy to oust his superiors. He is obsessed with assessing the relative friendliness of everyone he meets. Despite his double-dealings, greed and moral transgressions he believes that he is one of the “good guys” and his many “good friends” at ADM will welcome him into the top spot after he has taken most of the company management down. He lies about a key biographical fact because of a study about personal likeablity. He justifies every twisted manipulation of the truth or of others with an incessant internal dialogue filled with odd facts, off-kilter observations and self-promoting rationalizations.
Like all Power of Ambition characters Whitacre is exceptionally adept at self-justification and at distracting himself from his own crimes and ethical short-comings. Always the eternal optimist Whitacre enthuses, “There are so many really nice people in the world.” even as his web of deception is unraveling around him and one last lie earns him three times the prison sentence the other executives face.
A character driven by the Power of Ambition is a staple of American movies. This Character Type can be a hardworking, eager, charming optimist with a “can-do” spirit (Tom Cruise as the title character in Jerry Maguire)—or a lying, manipulative, backstabbing striver who will do anything to get ahead in life (Anne Baxter as Eve Harrington in All About Eve). Jim Carrey in Liar Liar is another comedic version of the type.
Power of Ambition characters can be aspirational characters who want to rise from a lowly station to a more exalted one. Or they can be prostitutes, frauds, fakers or con artists, always on the hustle. In either case, their personal vanity, status, popularity and social importance is key to these characters sense of self.
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