Let's face it, for the past two years Steven Soderbergh has been making highly politicized cinema in a way no American director would dare to—calmly, methodically, and without baiting either press or audiences with self-important "topics." It is the steadiness of the filmmaker's vision that has perhaps kept many from seeing just how far his digital works like Che and The Girlfriend Experience—both light years ahead of the superficiality and pretense of Traffic—investigate the current American political landscape. Those pictures have approached the process of revolutions and capitalist economics with the cerebral cool and exactitude of Michael Haneke filming an Otto Preminger production. Excersies above all else, the two movies deserve aloof respect rather than aggressive engagement, and it has not been until the filmmaker's new movie and one of his very best, The Informant!, that he has been able to rectify conceptual intelligence with cinematic attack, warm-blooded, witty, and as scathingly indicting as it is entertaining.
The Informant! is smart, incredibly smart, taking the ball from American Psycho's inside-out parody of 80s Wall Street culture and running with it to an even more sinister end. To hit a target as broad as a barn—American corporate atmosphere—Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who adapts Kurt Eichenwald's book) narrow the subject as much as possible, getting just so the exacting blandness of 1990s corporate culture.
Matt Damon, in a role of beautifully concentrated daftness, plays Mark Whitacre, a VP in a Midwestern agricultural firm who up and decides to squeal on his bosses and his company about their massive price-fixing schemes. With razor sharp acumen—and notable help from Marvin Hamlisch's 70s-style thriller score—The Informant! cuts deep by taking the form of a thriller whose hero is a well-coifed whitebread millionaire, the setting a generic Illinois office building and parking lots, the photography perennially the color of Whitacre's auburn mustache, and the thrills the blissfully ignorant bumbling of the elite squeeler's clueless, and increasingly nefarious, good samaritanism. The first of the film's many twists is that it treats amoral capitalistic companies like Hollywood arch-villainy, reveling in the ironic blandness of corporate swindles with bombastic stylization in proportion to the crimes committed.
That is one cutting joke of many. But a brief picture of The Informant!'s genre parody does little justice to the closet character study that emerges from Damon's performance and the story's deadpan plot twists. The crackling humor of the film—which comes from a myriad of sources—then builds off the inane, if not legitimately surreal impossibility that someone so high up and so well off would ever dare expose the horrible mechanisms behind their success and other's suffering.
The film starts, easily enough, by focusing on Whitacre and his two old-school FBI handlers working at taking down the price-fixing big company, but soon seamlessly segues into a strange portrait of the impossible non-entity of Damon's All American character. Whitacre's aspirational nonsequiters, his remarkably clueless behavior—to say more of which would be giving too much away—and the film's wry combined parody of the supreme colorlessness of corporate, 1990s, and Midwestern aesthetics—all places where evil lies!—shifts the film away from a bemused thriller parody and down a road of blistering satire.
The final coupe is when the focus jumps from Whitacre's actions to Whitacre himself, mirroring the FBI's shift from investigating the man's company to the man himself, the common scapegoat in a world of corporate litigiousness, where individuals fall instead of companies. A sad day for the heroic little guy? Lord no—The Informant! supplely twists in on itself to skewer the vacant enigma of Damon's character, a man Soderbergh magically embues with seemingly all characteristics to turn into a magnificent Janus figure: innocent and guilty, corrupt and honest, good natured and insidious, and, ultimately, just a man and the man who's the ultimate problem.
When at first it seems like the film's sly clipped pace, which keeps the parody and the humor coming and the psychology to a minimum, is undercutting the depth of Damon's character and The Informant!'s brutal political commentary, by the end the film casts a light on itself and its own subject and reveals itself to be an even deeper, darker, weirder, funnier, and far more scary place than we could have imagined. Soderbergh has always been a problematically self-conscious director, but it has not been until The Informant! that his movies's considerable smarts have taken the daring leap of using all the filmmaker's tricks, flair, and knowledge to craft such a sleek and rounded satire of so much, including itself.