Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bipolar Disorder in The Informant!

PhotonQ-Pre Screen of The Informant
Creating a realistic visual representation of mental illness on film has not always been Hollywood's strong suit, but I think it's getting better. Having a sophisticated audience that expects more than theatrics, helps. While The Informant! is, strictly speaking, about Mark Whitacre's corporate whistle-blowing while a vice-president at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), it also gives us an interesting look at bipolar disorder (formerly manic-depression).

What usually comes to mind, when this condition is mentioned, is alternating cycles of depressed, and then manic, episodes. In truth, as with other types of psychopathology, bipolar disorder can be manifest in several ways, such as mostly depressed with rare and mild manic phases, or predominantly manic with little observable depression.
Matt Damon plays Whitacre, who becomes an informant in an FBI investigation of price-fixing. Over time, Whitacre himself is accused of price-fixing and money laundering and comes under investigation. Throughout the film, we're treated to an ongoing stage whisper, a monologue in which Damon addresses the audience, revealing his character's thought process.

Prone to grandiose delusions, Whitacre imagines himself as the only person sufficiently and uniquely qualified to take over as CEO of ADM once his superiors have been removed because of their illegal activities. Portrayed as someone whose "internal power generator" is switched on a little too high, he goes through a period where he sleeps little, spends unnecessarily, and becomes so entranced by the investigative process that even the FBI question his motives.

Initially, I wasn't at all certain about Damon's character, because of the way he lies so frequently and convincingly. By the end of the film, the lies have become so interwoven and convoluted, not only were the other players confused, my head was spinning. Ordinarily when one sees that kind of thing, they think "narcissistic" or "antisocial" personality traits, but Whitacre doesn't come off as either of these. It's not as though he knows the truth and wants to deliberately deceive, as much as he sees himself as the author of a grand drama, making up the storyline lie by lie as he goes along. And honestly, I think his delusions eventually get so complicated, half the time even he doesn't know he's lying.



Near the end of the film, the judge in the case against Whitacre determines bipolar disorder has had nothing to do with the charges brought against him. I think this reflects the difficulty many have believing that someone can act like this character does, and not be in complete control of their faculties. Their behavior is goal-directed, seems intentional, and it is, but it's based on a mental rearrangement of reality that has little connection with the experience of the rest of us.
 
The Informant! is a dizzying account that spans several years in Whitacre's life when the stresses generated by his employers and worsened by investigation, combined with undiagnosed and untreated bipolar disorder to induce manic behavior. It's a tragic story in a lot of ways -- Whitacre ends up in prison and is released in the final scene -- but it's also fascinating to see how his condition co-opted his better judgment. It's a film well worth seeing, but be prepared to feel out of breath while trying to keep up with the main character.


(Creative Commons image of a PhotonQ pre-screen of The Informant!by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE via Flickr)

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