Kurt Eichenwald’s The Informant (2000) is a wonderful book, a business book the way they’re meant to be written, with an exciting story (whistleblower exposes price-fixing in major industry), compelling characters, and a seriously out-of-left-field plot twist (whistleblower turns out to be a liar with an, um, especially vivid imagination). It’s a serious book about a man who wanted to do a good thing, but went about it in about as wrong a way as he possibly could.
Soderbergh’s The Informant! (2009) is a comedy — not a laff-fest, but a character piece, with Matt Damon turning in one of his best performances as Mark Whitacre, the whistleblower. Soderbergh packed the supporting cast with comic actors — Joel McHale, Tom Papa, Patton Oswalt, Rick Overton, Scott Adsit, Dick and Tom Smothers — and the movie is witty and goofy and very funny. Damon put on weight and sports what appears to be a rather ludicrous hairpiece, he created a whole new set of physical mannerisms, and it’s very difficult, when watching him, not to break into laughter.
But here’s the thing: Eichenwald’s book and Soderbergh’s movie are the same thing. Eichenwald’s version is more serious, but he and Soderbergh are telling the same story. Soderbergh — and this is that genius thing I mentioned earlier — recognized that the key element of the story is actually pretty funny: the guy who blew the lid off the conspiracy was also defrauding his own company out of millions of dollars — not only that, but he was lying to the FBI and living a rich fantasy life. (For some reason I feel like this needs to be mentioned: Whitacre wound up in prison, but after his release he got his life and career back on track.)
Soderbergh could have fictionalized Whiteacre’s story. But instead he did something a lot tougher: he made a movie out of Eichenwald’s book. He just did it his own unique way. I think it’s one of his best films.
Here’s the movie trailer, so you’ll have an idea of Soderbergh’s approach: