The Informant! is not representative of whistleblowers, but it is an opportunity for dialogue

The Informant! is a new movie that plays the price-fixing crimes of ADM, and the embezzlement of whistleblower Mark Whitacre, for airy comedy. The original music track by Marvin Hamlisch gives an upbeat 1960’s feel to this 1990’s corporate crime drama.

The producers of The Informant! provided a screening of their new film for whistleblower advocates in Washington, DC.  They hope to start a dialogue about what their film can contribute to the whistleblower cause.  It is a serious endeavor spawned from a film that looks for laughs. Then again, whether we can reach deeper insights, and wider audiences, while laughing is itself a serious question. The informant! is opening tonight.


As a work for story telling, The Informant! is as complex and ironic as its subject matter.  Matt Damon plays Mark "Corky" Whitacre, a biochemist who rose to management in ADM’s Decatur, Illinois, plant that manufactures lysine, a corn derivative.  He is asked to participate in management’s meetings with other lysine manufacturers around the world to fix the supply and pricing.  After he reports to his boss how a Japanese competitor has claimed to have a corporate mole in ADM and has made an extortion demand, management decides to ask the FBI to investigate.  They agree to have his work telephone line at home monitored for evidence of this extortion.  Mark is nervous.  His wife demands that he tell the FBI the truth, not just about the extortion, but about the price fixing.  Finally, she makes clear — either you tell them or I will.  He does. Thus begins over two years of cooperation with the FBI’s investigation, including surreptitious tape recording.

All the while, we are hearing Mark’s inner thoughts.  Not as deep as Jack Handey’s thoughts on Saturday Night Live, but thoughts I eventually realized Mark cannot control. He yearns for a good listener.  "You don’t meet one of those every day," he realizes. Some of the thoughts add to our understanding of Mark, but others are just over my head.  Did I mention the anachronistic music?

The filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh, made me laugh at how dense Mark was.  This protagonist fails to see how he comes across to others, and what they are going to do in response. This is clearly not the typical whistleblower story.  Mark Whitacre did not come forward out of conscience to tell the truth, but rather fell into his role from a series of circumstances.  Had he foreseen how events would play out, he would have been crazy to come forward and cooperate the way he did.  Indeed, none of the sane characters did come forward.  This is a lesson for whistleblower advocates (originally expressed by Mike German of the ACLU):  we need better laws that will convince even sane workers that if they come forward, they will have all the force of law to protect them and compensate them for their losses.

Such laws, however, would not have helped Mark Whitacre.  His inability to control what he said, to interpose some stopgaps between his thoughts and his actions, made him unsuitable as a government witness.  It stymied the efforts of his own lawyer (Tony Hale) to get him the best deal available.

Here is the dilemma for whistleblower activists:  Mark Whitacre is not our poster child. He was an extreme example of "not our poster child."  As Angela Canterbury of Public Citizen noted, there are plenty of honest and courageous whistleblowers who can speak for us.  Some of them even have excellent movies to tell their stories:  Silkwood, The Insider, Norma Rae and Soderbergh’s own Erin Brockovich come to mind.  For me, though, I can still embrace The Informant! as a vehicle to raise the public debate about the need for better whistleblower law.  In my experience, every whistleblower client I have ever had as been a human being.  The employers we sued typically tried to use this flaw against my clients’ claims, but I argue that the law is the law for everyone.  If we want every technician in nuclear power plants, every wastewater treatment operator, every truck driver and corporate accountant to know they are protected on matters of public health, safety and integrity, then the blanket of legal protection will necessarily fall on its fair share of psychotics and other human beings with their own unique foibles.  If whistleblower laws are to work in attracting sane people to push for the public interest, then they have to know that their status as human being will not deprive them of protection.

"If he loses his job," an FBI agent (Scott Bakula) asks a superior, "will the government be behind him?" In 1996, the superior could not give the right answer.  Today our whistleblower laws protect only a few more narrow wedges of our workforce.

If you have the same privilege of seeing The Informant!, you might enjoy looking for the motif of Abraham Lincoln portraits in the scenery.  It is a reminder of how ADM’s scam arose in the Land of Lincoln, and builds the contrast between Honest Abe and the Land’s new inhabitants.

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