Fact-based Farce Puts Ag in Spotlight

How "The Informant" star Matt Damon ended up on my front lawn

Last weekend the movie "The Informant" opened to positive reviews around the country. This is a fact-based farce of a film set in the early '90s. It depicts the rise and fall of food processing giant Archer Daniels Midlands' executive Mark Whitacre, a hopelessly deluded biochemist whom most people thought would become CEO some day. Instead, he turned out to be bilking the company out of millions while simultaneously blowing the whistle on global price-fixing.


My wife and I have lived in Decatur, Ill., ADM's headquarters, nearly all our adult lives. At various points in Molly's career she has either worked at ADM in marketing or has worked for advertising/public relations firms that work with ADM. I recall vividly the day she came home from work raving about the new ADM executive Mark Whitacre she had just met – how his parents had been killed in a car crash at age 6, how he had been adopted, pulling himself up by his bootstraps, and various other incredible feats – none of which, it turns out, were true.


This is truly a case where truth is stranger than fiction. ADM eventually had to pay a $100 million fine for price fixing in lysine - at the time the largest anti-trust penalty in U.S. history. And those of us who live here in Decatur got to watch all of it play out in excruciating detail.


When we heard it would become a major motion picture starring Matt Damon, most of us were asking: How are they going to make this story entertaining?  I mean, really. Price fixing… in lysine? New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald had written a very thorough, serious-minded book. Leave it to Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh to turn 'screw loose' into 'screwball comedy.'


In any case, most of the folks in Decatur turned out for the opening last weekend. We went to a sold-out performance at a downtown theatre that normally attracts 50 or so people at each movie viewing. There were 700 of us jammed into the old Avon Theatre Friday night.


Brush with fame Nearly everyone in Decatur has a story to tell about what happened when the movie crew filmed here last fall. Unfortunately several scenes were not included in the final movie, including one shot in front of my house.


The whole neighborhood had turned out to watch the camera crew and actors filming a night scene where Matt Damon and others are arguing, then jumping into a car and racing up a hill.


Most all of our neighbors had been herded over to the side of a street by security. I had just run back into the house to call a guy to get his car off my driveway and bring our Bernese Mountain Dog Lucy outside to join the fun. Lo and behold there was Matt Damon himself, surrounded by four or five of his entourage – standing on my lawn, waiting to do his thing. Ignoring the security guys, I introduced myself and welcomed him to the neighborhood. He immediately wanted to know all about the dog. "Lucy is my wife's name, too," he said.


So we chatted for a moment, and I invited him in for a beer after the shoot (for some reason he declined). I gave him Lucy's leash – I had to have a reason to come back to see him - and grabbed my wife and daughter, who had been detained with the other neighbors. He really perked up when my wife told him she had worked with Mark Whitacre years ago.


If he hadn't been a movie star making $20 million a film, you would have thought Matt Damon was just another one of the guys. After about 15 minutes of chit-chat he had to go back to work. The scene never did appear in the movie, other than a brief shot at a neighbor's house depicting one of the ADM executives being indicted.


Later on I found out Damon had been seen in all sorts of local establishments, taking photos with the locals – and every one of them said he was the nicest guy they had ever met. And he was.


As for ADM and Decatur, life goes on. But now we're hoping for an Oscar nomination…


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