By Michael Ewins
For years before I saw Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! (2009) I wondered what Godard had really meant by that quote. I concluded that it was about the moments occurring between frames, meaning that the edit isn’t so much a lie as a deception which prevents us from seeing the whole truth. Maybe in Godard’s cinema, which rejects the traditional conventions of Hollywood, his quote is accurate. But most narrative films are surely more concerned with telling their story effectively than with being dishonest. I’m reminded of another quote, this time by Gus Van Sant in reference to his 2003 film Elephant:
“We’re used to making films and observing films with a kind of shorthand. You see the car going down the road. O.K. Got it. Then it’s the next shot. What usually happens then is people start talking about something that will relate to the story instead of something random and more lifelike; like dental work. We learn in English class not to have it be about dental work. But maybe watching the car going down the road is important. To really watch it – as if you were in the car.”
The Informant! finds the middle ground between these two trains of thought – it is a film about deceptive dental work; alternately true and false. It doesn’t seem that way at first glance though – for the most part the dialogue appears expository. In fact the beautiful thing about The Informant! is that in a way none of it relates to story, because we’re never sure what story we’re being told: it’s all contradiction building up to a sucker punch. The film opens with a title card: ‘While this motion picture is based on real events, certain incidents and characters are composites, and dialog has been dramatized. So there.’
Consider that tongue firmly in its cheek.
Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) thinks he’s somebody else. He makes several references to his life being like a Crichton novel, at one point calls himself 0014 (“because I’m twice as smart as 007“) and also highlights one situation as recalling The Firm (Sydney Pollack, 1993) (“everything they did to me they did to Tom Cruise.”). In Whitacre’s mind he’s the main character of an espionage novel, or a spy thriller. Do you remember The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)? Truman (Jim Carrey) was unwittingly the star of his own TV show and this is The Mark Show. Where Truman thought his life was real, Whitacre is intentionally building a fake universe around his fragile reality. Why? Well that’s what Soderbergh hides behind the cunning voiceover…
One scene finds FBI Agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula) about to deliver key instructions to Mark about the tapping of his home phone, when suddenly an obtrusive voiceover interrupts; “there’s a sale at Bachrach’s. They have those Oscar de la Renta ties that nobody buys. What are they, 2 for 1 for another week?” So that’s what we know, and this playful facade continues to interweave itself into the narrative to seemingly no effect. But it’s vital. Take another example, where Shepard is installing the phone tap and Mark’s voiceover intrudes once again, this time to pitch a TV show “about a guy who calls home one day and he’s there. He answers, he’s talking to himself, only it’s someone else. He’s somehow divided himself into two and the second one of him drives away. And the rest of the show is about him trying to find the guy.” At this point Soderbergh plays his ace card; he’s revealed the movie, but you’d never know it. Mark’s seemingly innocent ramblings are actually paranoid distractions from his own guilt (for what I shan’t spoil). We’re always within the psyche of our protagonist, and purposefully missing information he doesn’t want us to hear. It’s as if he’s evolving the narrative, internally. We’re living his side of events but, crucially, we’re seeing Soderbergh’s…
Despite the first person narration The Informant! is a third person film. Every voiceover is a red herring leading us deeper into the fractured mind of our protagonist, but he can’t escape the perspective of Soderbergh’s camera. It’s always focused on Whitacre, often in close-up or medium shot, hardly ever moving from his face. We observe every grimace and squirm, every moment where he thinks they’re getting closer to discovering the truth. But then the editing is deceptive in being framed around the narration; Soderbergh is shooting semi-truth but in the editing room creates semi-fiction, much like the way his standard revenge thriller The Limey (1999) became an experimental art film in post-production.
Godard would have loved The Informant! Here, everything is a lie: from Damon’s charmingly underhanded performance to the soft lighting and orange cinematography, which lend the film an inviting glow, ensuring that we never get tempted to look between the lines. Another voiceover in the film finds Mark discussing polar bears. When hunting in the wild they cover their black noses to blend into the white environment. But how, asks Mark, do they know their noses are black? Do they look at other polar bears, or see their reflection in the water? That’s an awful lot of thinking for a bear. It might also be the key to Soderbergh’s narrative construction.
The critics weren’t kind to The Informant! upon its release, branding it a quizzical oddity by its director. They should have known better. The Informant! is a film with three narratives at work – the scripted one, the one delivered by its duplicitous director, and the one he reforms in the editing suite. Everyone – Whitacre, Damon and Soderbergh – is an ambiguous and untrustworthy presence. It’s rare these days to find a film with a singular narrative arc that works, let alone a film with three masterfully interwoven arcs competing for attention. Illusionary, dynamic and intelligent, The Informant! is in fact so sleight of hand that it managed to slip by everyone… perhaps its biggest achievement of all on artistic level. Not so much so when it came to profits.