, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
Those of us who live in Decatur often joke that we are the center of the universe. Not only are we located in the middle of the Midwest, but the city comes only a few miles from being the geographical center of Illinois.
Those involved in agriculture know enough to take this self importance a step further. The city of Decatur is an island in the midst of a sea of corn and soybeans. The roots of soybean processing lie here with Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Tate & Lyle as mainstays in the local economy. Soybean meal and soybean oil still trade f.o.b. Decatur. Every other year, the Farm Progress Show turns the town into a three-day World's Fair of agriculture.
Still, the majority of Decatur residents seem oblivious to these agricultural connections. So it was with some amusement that I watched the town turn itself inside out last year for the filming of the movie "The Informant!,” a story about the lysine price-fixing incident that rocked ADM in the mid-1990's. The fact that a major movie star, Matt Damon, was hanging out in the neighborhood was kind of cool and anticipation has been running high for the movie release.
I'll admit it was free tickets more than curiosity that took me to the theatre on opening day. When I got there (45 minutes early) people were wrapped half way around the city block. Ironically, all of their arms were flailing at a snowstorm of soybean aphids that had also descended on the area. Maybe these winged critters were trying to tell us something.
I think I went into the movie thinking too much. I also lived in Decatur during the scandal and saw the impact it had on local attitudes and individuals. It was a confusing time. For me, the movie rekindled some of those old memories. I also went looking for local landmarks in the film footage and while it definitely was our town featured, a lot of the scenes we witnessed being filmed must have hit the editing floor.
The movie is based on a serious book by the same name written by New York Times senior writer Kurt Eichenwald. It centers on the actions of Mark Whitacre, a promising ADM golden boy, who becomes a confidential government witness. Using stakeouts, wiretaps and secret recordings of meetings around the world, Whitacre and the FBI team up to uncover a scheme to fix prices for the feed ingredient lysine.
It's hard to make lysine funny, but the movie is billed as a black comedy. In my opinion, this is mostly accomplished by making Whitacre, the corporate execs and the government agents look like rubes. Whitacre comes close to Maxwell Smart antics, but ultimately is disclosed as a chronic liar that made up his personal history and was also bilking ADM while carrying out his secret agent duties. ADM eventually pays $100 million in price fixing fines—at the time, the largest ever levied for that kind of wrong doing. In the end, a handful of people go to jail—including Whitacre.
I like movies, but I'm not a film expert or a critic. Fact is, I found the whole thing somewhat boring and I'll admit I even nodded off a couple of times. Maybe I have a little more of an idea of what happened with the case, but I can't help marvel that this story actually made it to the silver screen.