Few industries are more demonized than Big Tobacco. From the barrage of anti-smoking education in public schools to the "Truth" ads that seem ubiquitous on teen-friendly networks like MTV, cigarette companies lead the line-up of oil executives, pharmaceutical companies, and gun manufacturers in helping to perform the role of Corporate Monster — easy, go-to villains in the modern media landscape.
Needless to say, imbalanced portrayals of the multi-billion dollar industry often seem as prevalent as billboards and commercial breaks, which is why the new film adaptation of Christopher Buckley’s comic novel, "Thank You for Smoking," is such a pleasure. Neither a mindless defense of tobacco nor a one-sided attack piece, the film skewers both the industry and its government health-ninny detractors, even managing to send up Hollywood’s complicity in creating tobacco’s allure. An honest, funny account of the symbiotic worlds of mass entertainment and public argument, it’s the rare film that eschews partisan ideology in favor of individual freedom.
Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a cocksure tobacco industry representative with a talent for slippery arguments. He’s the sort of well-primped talking head who claims to have "a bachelor’s in kicking butt" and will, with a straight face, fight charges his industry disregards smoker health by telling a talk show audience that Big Tobacco has a vested interest in keeping cancer-stricken teens alive and smoking. Endlessly smug yet somehow endearing, he’s a note-perfect caricature of a successful Washington lobbyist.
The film centers on Nick’s crisis of conscience as he grins and weasels through the smoky haze of fact, rhetoric, and moral uncertainties that his job entails. As Nick brags to his power-lunching lobbyist friends — representatives of the gun and alcohol industries who, along with Nick, refer to themselves as the M.O.D. Squad, or Merchants Of Death — his job is to be the smooth-talking pretty face for an industry that, by his own estimation, "kills 1200 people a day." Further complicating things is the presence of his young son, Joey (Cameron Bright), who is wary about his father’s employment. Thus, whether it’s bribing former spokespeople or negotiating to get cigarettes featured in Hollywood blockbusters, Nick is constantly aware of the dubious perceptions his work engenders.
Director Jason Reitman, making his feature film debut, sticks fairly close to the narrative laid out in Buckley’s book, but he gives more prominence to both Joey and Hollywood. Joey serves as a something of a stand-in for the audience, an innocent who has yet to take sides in the tobacco debate but has an understandable antipathy toward his father’s profession. A minor player in the novel, Reitman smartly expands the son’s role for the movie to allow the audience to see the issue unencumbered by a lifetime of cigarette ads and anti-smoking propaganda.
Just as clever is the choice to play up the Hollywood connection, which blows smoke in the face of the holier-than-thou movie industry by reminding audiences how quickly the film world will partner with tobacco when enough money is involved. When Nick arrives in L.A. to pitch the idea of sexy, smoking stars to a big-shot movie exec (hysterically played by Rob Lowe), he’s surprised by how effortlessly the Tinseltown denizen explains away any concerns about the health effects of tobacco. "I could learn from this guy," Nick thinks, and the message is clear: For all its self-righteous moralizing, Hollywood will — as it has for decades — lend cigarettes its glitz and gloss if there are truckloads of cash to be made.
But the parallels to the movie biz don’t stop there: The film wryly contrasts the unhinged luxury of Hollywood with the stodgy, patent-leather stuffiness of D.C. Every Wonkette reader knows the saying "D.C. is L.A. for ugly people," and "Thank You for Smoking" seems to be working under that assumption, making the most of the movie industry’s penchant for narcissism and excess as well as Washington’s lack of glamour. But despite the cultural differences, the film suggests, both cities are essentially in the same business: the packaging and selling of ideas.
In many ways, "Thank You for Smoking" is an exploration of the culture and business of professional argument. Nick, who makes his living as a sort of linguistic contortionist, explains to young Joey that, "if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong," and finds himself spinning facts and figures in everyday conversations with his family. Nick and his lobbyist cohorts even have to stop themselves from fighting for bragging rights over whose industry causes the most deaths. Like Philip Roth’s satirical novel "Our Gang" and the policy-rapping antics of Warren Beatty’s "Bulworth," the movie exposes the fragility of language and the way words can be endlessly reconstituted to serve nearly any purpose.
But unlike "Our Gang" or other political satires of its ilk, "Thank You for Smoking" smartly avoids using the malleability of language as fuel for partisan rage. Instead, it suggests that free, individual choice, buffered by strong families and good education, should be the ideal. Reitman claims to believe that "freedom is tough, liberty is tough," and that he doesn’t like government control. His movie reflects this, allowing that there are some shady, cynical characters on the tobacco side of the fight, but reserving just as much venom for the pusillanimous arrogance of the regulation-addicted Senators and government busybodies who populate the halls of American bureaucracy. The film also offers a short, balanced debate of risk-regulation when Nick points out the absurdity of trying to micro-manage all risk out of life. Nick even gets in a quick rejoinder to the idea that corporate-financing automatically taints research when he reminds a sanctimonious politician where so much campaign financing originates.
As with most films, there are quibbles to be had. In a brief mention, the movie treats the Master Settlement Agreement between Big Tobacco and the states as a punishment of Big Tobacco, and in doing so, perpetuates a great myth. In fact, both Big Tobacco and the states have prospered under the settlement, while smokers have paid higher cigarette prices as a result of the deal. Later, another scene seems to indicate that cell phone usage likely poses health risks, when evidence clearly suggests otherwise.
But despite some inaccuracies, the jaunty, free-spirited movie is a delight to watch. Reitman’s nimble direction dazzles, combining freeze frames, animations, and an array of cinematic trickery to keep the light tone and zippy pace of the novel. It’s not just a film that can be lauded for its stance on freedom; it’s a finely crafted, entertaining movie. Good films are rare enough to begin with, but to find one that promotes liberty, family, and free choice is a breath — or perhaps in this case, a puff — of fresh air.