This movie could be called a dark comedy, but it evades capture by any known genre; it runs the gamut of emotions as demonstrated by protagonist Mark Whitacre, whom Matt Damon plays most convincingly. Based on a true story, it illustrates what can occur to whistle-blowers when confronted with the overwhelming power of both global corporations and the U.S. government.
The story begins in the early 1990s when Whitacre discovers the company where where he serves as a high-ranking executive, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), is engaged in price-fixing. He has risen rapidly to this position by virtue of a Ph.D. in biochemistry and his fluency in several languages. His access to the production of lysine, an important additive used by many global food producers, allows him glimpses of companies' inner workings in meetings with their top executives.
Stumbling upon information about possible price-fixing, Whitacre contacts the FBI and soon finds himself the point man of an operation to collect clandestine information. The FBI equips him with a recording device (this is in the early 90s), and as he travels to several continents to meet with the CEOs of the global corporations who also produce lysine, he discovers the extensive scope of the scheme. For several years Whitacre succeeds in recording hundreds of hours of tape and video evidence of corporate collusion.
Witacre conducts meetings over several years and in a number of countries: Japan, France, Mexico and Hong Kong. Having previously lived in several continents, he is familiar with the territory and his memories serve him well. One example: seeing a teacup or a scene from years earlier, he is reminded of an event connected to an object, and lapses into almost childlike reminiscences, which we see with voice-overs of his thoughts. As he rambles disconnectedly, we begin to wonder about both his mental stability and competence to hold such a position in a global corporation.
As the sole informant, the FBI must rely on Witacre. However, they slowly see that he is a loose canon, supposing he is the James Bond of the corporate world. Astonishingly, his inept actions seem to raise no suspicions with a single corporate executive during the years of the investigation.
Whitacre truly believes that by turning evidence over to the government he will be hailed as a hero and promoted to the top position in his company. The tempo advances rapidly, and we are drawn into a labyrinth of plot meanderings, not knowing at any moment what surprises will be revealed. Whitacre almost elicits our sympathy with the tangled web of deception he weaves.
All the while, his patient and loving wife and family stand behind him at every step of the way, although she becomes fearful after suspicious phone calls smash her sense of equilibrium. She confronts Mark and is calmed by his reassurance that “things are about to happen” which will only move him toward becoming president of ADM, a move he craves.
When the FBI begins checking on Whitacre’s history, they make some startling discoveries of possible check forgeries and question him. He always has a ready answer. Eventually, the suspicion becomes impossible to ignore and Whitacre begins to unravel--but only slowly. As evidence keeps piling up, Whitacre begins inventing more implausible explanations. The FBI becomes angrier and more agitated at each revelation and now ADM’s attorneys enter the picture. Despite the government's repeated urgings not to talk to anyone, he rather cheerily begins talking to the attorneys.
There are charges and countercharges: the government sues ADM for price-fixing, but Whitacre almost immediately becomes a defendant. He was warned by the FBI to get his own attorneys, but his inability to understand the dire situation only compounds things. Although his naiveté seems implausible for someone with such a prestigious position, he nevertheless feels certain that he is competent and can control any session with the company’s attorneys.
Without spoiling the rest of the story, this is a movie with no violence or sex, an an occasional use of words which should not shock a mature audience able to follow the plot. It is an enjoyable escapade: part mystery, part comedy, but a real-life story.
As a follow-up, Whitacre is now President of Cypress Systems, Inc., a biotechnology company in Fresno, California. During the intervening years of the story, he has added several advanced degrees--including a law degree--to his Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry from Cornell University. Fortune Magazine highlighted Whitacre in September, 1995. He was the youngest Divisional President in the history of ADM at the age of 32. At age 35, he was promoted as Corporate Vice President and an officer of the company. He now resides with his wife, Ginger, in Pensacola, Florida. His effort now is spent on a branded selenium ingredient which has been shown to reduce prostate, colon and lung caner by as much as 63 percent.
Elaine Nelson is a retired cancer data analyst and life-long student. She returned to college after age 60 and received an M.A. in Liberal Studies in 2006. Elaine enjoys participating in the Spectrum Blog and honing her writing skills.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1864