In 2009, Steven Soderbergh’s career reached a turning point.
Nine years before, in Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts played the eponymous, real-life whistleblower who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds—the suppressive power of corporate America, her lack of formal law training, rampant sexism—to expose the attempted cover-up of water pollution in her Southern California hometown. She did so through rigorous investigation, unwavering commitment, and a sense of righteousness.
In The Informant!, Matt Damon, as real-life whistleblower Mark Whitacre, has the odds in his favor—a righteous cause, inside access, and the full support of the FBI—as he attempts to expose a conspiracy of price-fixing in the lysine industry. But he blows it through a combination of cluelessness, credulousness, and plain old-fashioned greed.
There’s a reason both of these true stories spoke to Soderbergh. His filmography reveals an abiding fascination with highly-competent professionals, on either side of the law, who pull off the impossible as a matter of routine: the criminals of Out of Sight, the crews of the Ocean’s films, the world-saving scientists of Contagion. At the same time, he’s maintained an interest in the hopeless cases who have been beaten down by the petty corruption of corporate America—the white-collar losers of Schizopolis being perhaps most significant amongst Whitacre’s forebears.
But The Informant! seems to mark the point at which these losers were revealed to be not so sympathetic. In fact, it turns out they’re running the ones running the show, and making a spectacular hash of it. Not only that, but they also seem to vastly outnumber the professionals whose highly-specialized work was previously assumed to be justly rewarded for keeping everything on an even keel. Scott Bakula and Joel McHale’s FBI agents go to bat for Whitacre against their skeptical bosses, and he betrays this confidence by revealing himself to be an incompetent and delusional white-collar criminal who has been attempting to conceal his own pattern of embezzlement and corporate corruption. Their positions are threatened, but it’s their trust in the world that’s shaken most.
Amongst Soderbergh’s singular skills as a filmmaker is his uncanny ability to read the market, a knack for predicting the course of cinema and preemptively adjusting both his working methods and the films he makes accordingly. He can see what’s coming around the corner, whether it’s heralding the indie boom with his debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, anticipating the switch to digital film, or embracing the advent of video on demand. Frequently these innovations are adopted before they become fashionable, and he often pays the price at the box office for staying ahead of the curve. What he didn’t see coming, though—the thing we’re repeatedly told nobody saw coming—was the global financial crisis which rocked the world in 2008, an oversight for which he seemed to pay an even heavier price.
Not unlike the scandal that Mark Whitacre was a willing and active participant in, the crash was the result of spectacular mismanagement by individuals largely assumed to have everything in hand, and the films Soderbergh made in the aftermath of this recession appear to illustrate a significant change of worldview along these lines. They express a skepticism towards the sort of professionalism, ambition, and meritocratically-rewarded effort celebrated in his earlier films—replaced with a despair that everything was going to hell in a handbasket. It changed things behind the scenes as well: Soderbergh’s interest in the business side of show business gave way to a kind of morbid fascination; he began to change his working methods more out of necessity, when before it seemed such changes just as often came out of a spirit of artistic experimentation or creative reinvention.
The Informant!, made the year following the crash, was the first to make explicit this new cynicism the world was feeling—and it was also the most broadly comic film Soderbergh had ever made. We see the drama of the ailing economy through an absurdist eye. It’s a satire where the world is revealed to be a chaotic mess, success is a crapshoot, and the most unprofessional people often manage to fail upwards into positions where they can do the most damage. It’s also really, really funny. We listen to Whitacre contemplate the correct pronunciation of Porsche in voiceover, when he should be concerned with concealing the extra income that allowed him to buy such a car. We watch as he loses his cushy position with the FBI by accidentally outing himself as similarly corrupt through a slip of the tongue. You have to laugh, because what’s the alternative?
The Informant! is a farce, but one which remains clear-eyed in its frustration towards these crooks that tanked the economy and ruined everything for the rest of us, and you can see the roots of this frustration even earlier in Soderbergh’s career. In 2008, when the crisis began, he released Che. The epic two-part biopic about the Cuban revolutionary proved difficult to fund and exhausting to shoot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it didn’t exactly clean up at the domestic box office. From then on, Soderbergh announced he was “done” making serious movies, only to find even his most commercially-friendly pitches were struggling to find a studio willing to finance them. He did manage to shoot The Informant! soon after, though, and would follow it with a series of smaller pictures.
The Informant! drew a the line between these two eras for Soderbergh. Che had cost close to $60 million. The Ocean’s trilogy varied in budget from $85 to $110 million. He managed to get nearly $50 million of studio money to make his meditative sci-fi drama Solaris (2002). The Girlfriend Experience (2009), meanwhile, cost just $1.7 million. Magic Mike (2012) was a surprise hit, but one mostly funded out of the pockets of Soderbergh and star Channing Tatum (to the tune of $7 million). Side Effects (2013) was made for the also-relatively-small budget of $30 million, which it nonetheless failed to recoup.
Soderbergh had made films on a smaller scale before, but these films were the first whose stories and characters reflected the austere economic reality in which they were created. His work from The Informant! onward features characters who don’t control their own fates, and are instead subject to the cruel, seemingly random whims of the market. In The Girlfriend Experience, high-class escort Chelsea (Sasha Grey) spends most of her time lending a sympathetic ear to her clients. Most of these clean-cut white collar men are worried about what the recession means for them—while Chelsea herself struggles to expand her business, with an entire sequence given over to her talking about boosting the SEO ranking of her website.
One of the most crushing scenes in Magic Mike is when the titular stripper attempts to apply for a loan, hoping to move into a more legitimate line of work, only to be turned down because he’s considered too risky—despite the laissez-faire approach banks had when it came to lines of credit, pre-crisis. Meanwhile, Rooney Mara’s Emily Taylor in Side Effects, winds up alone and depressed when her husband is jailed for insider training. Her mental state seemingly worsens when, following an attempted suicide, she is placed on an experimental antidepressant at the behest of a psychiatrist (Jude Law) who needs a little extra scratch, being paid to take part in a trial by a colleague (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She is isolated thanks to the tanking economy, and her condition is implied to be further worsened because of it. At this point, the threat posed by the market becomes, in Soderbergh’s films, a psychological as well as a material threat.
The Girlfriend Experience, Side Effects, and Magic Mike all feature people doing highly specialized work. But professional skill doesn’t necessarily guarantee employment in these later films, just as a career full of critically-acclaimed box office hits would no longer guarantee Soderbergh the larger budgets he had previously worked with. Director and characters find themselves at the whim of economic forces too large to comprehend, which nonetheless have a palpable effect on their personal and professional lives—and it seems to have been on the director’s mind, too.
In 2013 he gave the keynote speech at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, where he laid out the economic factors behind what he saw as the creative stagnation of the movie industry. He lamented the studios’ unwillingness to take risks, and the way that business concerns have trumped creativity. “Cinema as I define it, and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience,” he has said. “The reasons for this, in my opinion, are more economic than philosophical, but when you add an ample amount of fear and a lack of vision, and a lack of leadership, you’ve got a trajectory that I think is pretty difficult to reverse.”
Soderbergh did manage to successfully weather this hostile climate—to thrive in it, even. The world may have changed irrevocably, and his industry with it, but he remained ever the pragmatist. After making Side Effects, he briefly retired from filmmaking, then found greater opportunities to make the projects he wanted in the realm of prestige television, including an anthology extension of The Girlfriend Experience which further explored the “work” side of sex work.
He’s since returned to the big screen with more small and independently-funded pictures like Logan Lucky (which also features characters struggling through economic uncertainty as a result of the recession) and the forthcoming, shot-on-an-iPhone Unsane (another low-budget production). These smaller pictures allow him to exert even greater control over his vision, while their budgets represent a reaction against what Soderbergh considers the wastefulness of his pre-crisis films. “When we did Ocean’s Thirteen the casino set used $60,000 of electricity every week,” he revealed in his 2013 keynote speech: “How do you justify that?”
The Informant! serves as a grim epiphany. It’s the film where Soderbergh showed us that none of the money men knew what they were doing, and that the professionals were on their way out. The films that followed found him dealing with the fact that mainstream studio filmmaking was no longer the arena for the sort of stories he wanted to tell. Nonetheless, he made something marketable—a crowd-pleasing, laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s a comedy borne out of necessity, since Whitacre’s venality and short-sightedness is the same sort of behavior that led to the economic crisis, and the audience didn’t particularly want (or need) a reminder of how terrible everything was.
And so Soderbergh translated Whitacre’s true story, not into an inspiring drama like Erin Brockovich, but instead into a farce. He pivoted according to the circumstances he found himself in, shrunk his budgets and his scope, and found little niches where he could make the films he wanted. Always tapped into the zeitgeist, he was as much reflecting the views of the audience as he was own experiences, giving us something other than anger—though he, too, appears to have been disillusioned by the corporate white-collar world, which had more say in the films he made than he probably liked.
Soderbergh’s post-crisis films—The Informant!, The Girlfriend Experience, Magic Mike, Side Effects—present a trenchant critique of corrupt industries, despairing that the competent are ever rewarded or that an honest worker ever has a chance. At the same time, the very circumstances of their making—made possible by Soderbergh’s ingenuity, adaptability, and persistence—suggest that there may be a way to succeed in spite of these insurmountable forces. Perhaps there’s hope for the professional after all.