Film turns the tables on the smoking debate

by Glen Baity

One of the best satires to come out of Hollywood in years finally hits Greensboro in Thank You For Smoking, the first feature film by director/screenwriter Jason Reitman. The title suggests it as an anti-smoking screed in the vein of those ads, but this film is hardly the rallying cry that group has been looking for. The subject matter of Reitman’s debut is a red herring of sorts. But more on that in a minute.

The film’s plot centers around a political struggle initiated by Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy). The hippyish politician from Vermont is on a mission to label cigarettes as the scourge they are by placing a skull and crossbones logo on each pack under block letters spelling out the word ‘POISON.’ The point, he says, is to foist upon the soulless tobacco industry some long-needed truth in advertising.

But the senator faces a formidable opponent in Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), vice-president of the hilariously named ‘“Academy of Tobacco Studies,’” who doubles as the most skilled lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

Nick prides himself on talking for a living ‘— the first time the audience sees him, he’s on a daytime talk show extolling the virtues of cigarettes next to a teenage cancer patient, magically turning the public’s opinion in his favor through nothing but charm and circular logic.

Shortly after that appearance Nick develops the idea to reestablish the cool factor his product used to enjoy through product placement in major Hollywood movies. He travels to LA on a mission, bringing along his son Joey (Cameron Bright), who loves his father, even if he is the antichrist.

This is certainly a film about cigarettes, but it’s only a superficial subject matter. Thank You For Smoking is really about America’s all-consuming, insatiable appetite for bullshit, the riper the better. Tobacco makes a perfect metaphor, because it encapsulates that ethos so well ‘— as widely noted, the product kills one out of every three people who use it, yet a quarter of Americans continue to do so undeterred. How does that happen?

Thank You explains it elegantly: the brilliant thing about the film’s script is that, despite those stark statistics, everything Eckhart says to take the heat off his employer is accurate. While testifying at a Senate hearing on the subject of the warning labels, he points out that high cholesterol can be just as lethal as cigarettes, yet the products that contain it ‘— fast food, often covered in Vermont cheddar cheese ‘— fly under the radar, no warning label, no political harassment.

Of course, that’s irrelevant to whether or not smoking is bad, and Nick knows it, but he also knows it doesn’t matter. If his opponent is wrong ‘— or better still, hypocritical ‘— the argument is over.

By making the film about the power of persuasion rather than the evils of smoking, Reitman gets to the heart of why people smoke, or drink to excess, or do anything they shouldn’t do: because they’ve convinced themselves that it’s not as bad as what other people do.

Eckhart’s performance is so winning because he’s more than happy to support this popular, if specious, line of reasoning. Nick is a proud pragmatist and cynic, and you never stop cheering for the guy, despite what his success might entail ‘— he’s only giving the people what they want. One of the last universally lauded character types is the man who is honest about his dishonesty, and Nick is never less than great at defending the indefensible.

As satires go, Thank You For Smoking is among the best I’ve ever seen. The casting is close to perfect ‘— check out JK Simmons as Nick’s boss, Sam Elliott as the former Marlboro Man dying of lung cancer and Robert Duvall as the Winston-Salem-based CEO of Big Tobacco, just three of the many stand-outs in this fantastic ensemble.

What this film captures most effectively is the experience of living in a world where facts are only as good as the spin through which they’re filtered. In the end, it seems to come down on the side of personal accountability, though it makes no bones about the amoral nature of its protagonist and how he complicates that endeavor. This is a film about how our appetites often trump our better impulses, and its abundant laughs are mined from the uncomfortably self-aware side of its audience. Those searching for flavor country should look no further.

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