The Informant!

Dark comedy? Absolutely. Dark comedy based on real-life drama? Hell yeah. The Informant, starring Matt Damon as legendary ADM whistleblower Mark Whitacre, is an often funny, frequently intriguing and well-executed period piece (the period being the 1990s) that tells the story of a flawed man who exposes a global price-fixing scam perpetrated by (sinister music) ADM — yes, the friendly Archer Daniels Midland that sponsors your favorite show on NPR. It turns out that the self-proclaimed “Supermarket to the World” was actually conspiring with its competitors to fix prices in the market for the food additive lysine.

Whitacre, a group president in the bio products division of the agra giant, reveals to the FBI that his company is engaging in anti-competitive activities, and agrees to record conversations and meetings to collect evidence. The evidence he collects over several years leads to the arrests of top ADM executives. Unfortunately, it is revealed to the FBI that Whitacre has actually been bilking the company out of millions of dollars the entire time, and he ends up spending more time in jail for taking $9 million from the company than the ADM executives who cheated the public out of possibly hundreds of times that amount. As Whitacre says in the film, “I stole from the company, but they stole from everyone who buys anything at a grocery store.”

Damon’s portrayal of the complicated Whitacre was just right. His fidgety tendencies matched perfectly with the audience’s expectation of how a bipolar whistleblower might behave. His timing and delivery were perfect, including in the classic scene where he discloses his theft from the company to the FBI agents assigned to his case. He keeps just the right amount of suspense as he reveals his secret, and I was leaning back in my chair, wincing, thinking, “Oh, for the love of God, don’t say it!”

The costumes and art direction captured the feel of the late 1990s perfectly, right down to the patterns of the ties that reminded me of a number of Amway meetings that I attended in my college years. The supporting cast wasn’t anything to write home about, but they supported Damon adequately. The shining star in the chorus was Tony Hale as Whitacre’s loyal attorney, James Epstein. After hearing the real-life Epstein discuss his role in the case, I am convinced that Hale captured the passion of an attorney vigorously defending a client he truly believes in. I was shocked when I heard Hale use the word “bullshit” in one scene, because he is an evangelical Christian who has refused to use profanity on screen in the past. Back when he was on Arrested Development, in a scene in which his character goes on a profanity-laced tirade that is bleeped for television, he made a point of not actually saying any profanities, mouthing the alphabet instead.

I love a good conspiracy theory, so here comes one in my final thought about the movie. I wonder how much of what really happened is portrayed in this film. Yes, the movie has Whitacre’s tacit support, and I am sure that Kurt Eichenwald, the author of the book on which the movie is based, spend a lot of effort on research, but I wonder how much ADM’s political clout contributed to the minuscule sentences of the faithful executives, while Whitacre spent nearly a decade in jail. One cannot dispute the disproportionate punishment, given that Whitacre took millions, while ADM has likely taken billions.

Gallo Blanco Café at the Clarendon

When I think of secret informants, investigations, and conspiracies in Phoenix, I immediately think of the story of Don Bolles. An investigative journalist for The Arizona Republic, Bolles had uncovered a number of scandals, including some involving organized crime. On June 2, 1976, he went to the Hotel Clarendon (now the Clarendon Hotel) to meet an informant, and was killed when a bomb blew up his car in the parking lot.

I don’t think that any of my work for DPJ has been controversial enough to warrant concern about a possible hit on me, but I do always look twice when I park my car at the Clarendon Hotel, even if just for nostalgia’s sake, and to honor someone who died in a noble pursuit of truth.

On this week’s trip to the Clarendon Hotel, I visited the Gallo Blanco Café for what I believe is the best brunch for your money in Phoenix. Sure, it isn’t the relentless pursuit of truth, but it is delicious. Our table started out with the fantastic fresh guacamole, which at $7 is as expensive as any of the main courses that I have ever had on the Gallo Blanco menu. I enjoyed the huevos rancheros ($6), which feature well-seasoned beans, perfectly textured tortillas and a delicious chili sauce. They also serve an amazing veggie torta ($7) that I could argue is the best vegetarian sandwich in Phoenix. To drink, you must try the carmely delicious cafe con leche ($3.75) made with Cartel coffee beans.

The only misfire on the menu is the Chicharrón de Queso ($7) which is an over-crisp disaster. If anyone knows where in Phoenix one can find an LA-quality chicharrón de queso, let me know — please! The Gallo Blanco wait staff is efficient, if indifferent, and the atmosphere is what I call “Clarendon cool.” Like the rest of the property, Gallo Blanco’s dining room has the sense that someone finished about 90% of the construction, then just decided to quit. The flooring has ragged edges, the wall transitions are sloppy, and the decor is an odd mish-mash that isn’t quite eclectic. I am pretty sure that they save the attention to detail for the food, and there they score big time.