by Rick Grant
Grade: B+ / Rated R / 108 min
In this Steven Soderbergh film, things are not what they seem on the surface. The scenario’s main character, Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) seems to be the all-American button-down corporate stooge. He has a PhD microbiology and is working for a company that makes a food additive- lysine, a chemical that enhances food production. By all outward appearances, he’s successful, brilliant, and a solid family man.
Whitacre turns whistle-blower when he is forced to participate in the company’s international price fixing scheme. He goes to the FBI as a concerned citizen, who has a family and wants to do the right thing. His FBI handlers, Special Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) and Special Agent Dean Paisley (Allan Havey) take Whitacre at his word. After all, he’s doing a noble thing and he gave them pictures of his family.
Over a period of two years, Whitacre wears a wire and sets up surveillance video in hotel rooms during executive meetings with foreign competitors, setting up the price fixing agreement. Whitacre turns out to be a bumbling idiot when it comes to being a spy. He almost gives away the hidden video setups on more than one occasion.
Agents Shepard and Paisley put up with Whitacre’s incompetence at espionage, but later in the story, they discover he has lied to them. This poses a serious threat to their case against the company. As time goes on, Whitacre’s lies become more elaborate.
The underlying plot involves companies that use these harmful chemicals without proper testing for safety. This element of the story is not fully developed because Whitacre’s con games with the FBI and the company take over the story. The viewer asks, “what’s Whitacre’s end game.” It seems that he is trying to take over the company. But once the story gets out to the press, he’s a pariah to the company’s board of directors.
At some point in the story, the audience begins to ask, “what else is Whitacre lying about.” There seem to be many levels to his game. By now, Whitacre’s handlers are disillusioned and don’t trust him to deliver what he promised.
The cast play their roles tongue-in cheek as comedians. Most of the scenes are hilarious as Whitacre plays the company and the FBI like puppets in his master plan. He even confuses and frustrates the U.S. Attorney on the case.
To Whitacre, he’s playing a chess game with all concerned for his hidden agenda, which is not revealed to nearly the end of the story. Soderbergh lets his characters tell the story with cleverly written dialogue which features droll humor. Whitacre presents himself as someone who could never conceive of such a complex con as is determined later in the story, as his lies begin to reveal his agenda.
Matt Damon’s portrayal of Whitacre is Oscar worthy. Damon gained 30 pounds for the role and happily assumes the body of this guy who is too smart for his own good. What may seem like his incompetence, are really calculated moves in his game of getting rich and taking over the company.
In some ways, this film is like Catch Me if You Can, and like that film, it has many layers of deceit. It’s a fun trip to get inside Whitacre’s head as he steam rolls over the FBI posing as an innocent guy who is the victim of his company’s malfeasance.
This movie is a great escape from the economic problems we all are experiencing. Viewers will love Whitacre’s sneaky ways of making everyone feel he is just a regular guy, while sticking it too them.
by Rick Grant