Mark Whitacre, a rising star at Decatur, Illinois, based Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the early 1990s, blows the whistle on the company’s price-fixing tactics at the urging of his wife Ginger.
One night in November 1992, Whitacre confesses to FBI special agent Brian Shepard that ADM executives—including Whitacre himself—had routinely met with competitors to fix the price of lysine, an additive used in the commercial livestock industry. Whitacre secretly gathers hundreds of hours of video and audio over several years to present to the FBI. He assists in gathering evidence by clandestinely taping the company’s activity in business meetings at various locations around the globe such as Tokyo, Paris, Mexico City, and Hong Kong, eventually collecting enough evidence of collaboration and conspiracy to warrant a raid of ADM.
Whitacre’s good deed dovetails with his own major infractions, while his internal, secret struggle with bipolar disorder seems to take over his exploits. The bulk of the film focuses on Whitacre's meltdown resulting from the pressures of wearing a wire and organizing surveillance for the FBI for three years, instigated by Whitacre's reaction, in increasingly manic overlays, to various trivial magazine articles he reads. In a stunning turn of events immediately following the covert portion of the case, headlines around the world report Whitacre had embezzled $9 million from his own company during the same period of time he was secretly working with the FBI and taping his co-workers, while simultaneously aiming to be elected as ADM CEO following the arrest and conviction of the remaining upper management members. In the ensuing chaos, Whitacre appears to shift his trust and randomly destabilize his relationships with Special Agents Shepard and Herndon and numerous attorneys in the process.
Authorities at ADM begin investigating the forged papertrail Whitacre had built to cover his own deeds. After being confronted with evidence of his fraud, Whitacre's defensive claims begin to spiral out of control, including an accusation of assault and battery against Agent Shepard and the FBI, which had made a substantial move to distance their case from Whitacre entirely. Because of this major infraction and Whitacre’s bizarre behavior, he is sentenced to a prison term three times as long as that meted out to the white-collar criminals he helped to catch. In the epilogue, Agent Herndon visits Whitacre in prison as he videotapes a futile appeal to seek a presidential pardon. Overweight, balding and psychologically beaten after his years long ordeal, Whitacre is eventually released from prison, with his wife Ginger waiting to greet him.
In 2002, after completing Ocean's Eleven, Soderbergh announced his intent to adapt the book The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald, a former journalist for The New York Times. Scott Z. Burns wrote the script based on the book.
Production began in May, 2008 in Decatur, Illinois. Filming was also done at the former Whitacre mansion in Moweaqua, Illinois, a small town about 25 miles from Decatur, and at Illini Country Club in Springfield, Illinois. Some exterior shots were done in Mesa, Arizona, in November 2008. Other portions of the film were shot in the Coachella Valley, California. The film was released on September 18, 2009. Damon gained 20–30 pounds for the role in order to look more like Whitacre.
For the film Soderbergh cast a number of stand up comedians in prominent and supporting roles, including Andrew Daly, Joel McHale, Allan Havey, Tom Papa, Patton Oswalt, Rick Overton, Paul F. Tompkins, the Smothers Brothers and Bob Zany.
The film opened at #2 behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs with $10,545,000. As of December 17, 2009 the film had grossed $33,316,821 domestically and $41,771,168 worldwide.
In the United Kingdom, the film opened at #10 with £179,612 from the opening weekend. It was the third highest new entry after A Serious Man and The Twilight Saga: New Moon.
The film received generally favorable reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes reported that 79% of critics gave positive reviews based on 210 reviews with an average score of 6.8/10. Another review aggregator, Metacritic, which assigns a rating from reviews from mainstream critics, reported a score of 66 out of 100 based on 37 reviews.
Roger Ebert awarded the film 4 stars out of 4, claiming "The Informant! is fascinating in the way it reveals two levels of events, not always visible to each other or to the audience." While giving the film the grade of a B, Entertainment Weekly noted that "Soderbergh has chosen to apply an attitude of arch whoopee, a greasy veneer of mirth over what is, no joke, a serious mess of malfeasance and mental instability," concluding, "Soderbergh ultimately made the choice to abandon interesting, dispassionate empathy for the more quick-fix payoff of amusement." Rolling Stone gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, and, in response to critics of the film's comic tone, Peter Travers commented, "Laugh you will at The Informant!, but it's way too real to laugh off." People magazine also assigned the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, saying, "[Damon]'s a hoot, and so is the movie." Todd McCarthy of Variety also praised Damon's performance, calling his interpretation of Whitacre, "The wacky little brother of Erin Brockovich" (whose life was also adapted by Soderbergh into a film).
The film received nominations for multiple awards, including a Satellite Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy for Matt Damon as well as a nomination from the Detroit Film Critics Society. Damon was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.