Thank You for Smoking
Director : Jason Reitman
Screenplay : Jason Reitman (based on the novel by Christopher Buckley)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Aaron Eckhart (Nick Naylor), Maria Bello (Polly Bailey), Cameron Bright (Joey Naylor), J.K. Simmons (Budd "B.R." Rohrabacher), Adam Brody (Jack), Sam Elliott (Lorne Lutch), Katie Holmes (Heather Holloway), David Koechner (Bobby Jay Bliss), William H. Macy (Senator Finistirre), Rob Lowe (Jeff Megall), Robert Duvall (The Captain)
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say, many of which, according to Jason Reitman's biting political satire Thank You For Smoking, come from overprotective feds who are bound and determined to keep us all safe from our own irresponsible selves. The film's staunch libertarianism is like a breathe of fresh air in the noxious smog created by the hawkish right and their determination to enforce "freedom" militarily in all four corners of the globe and the sappy left and their determination to legislate the salvation of kittens and old people. It makes no apologies and takes no prisoners; this is a film, after all, in which the hero is the chief lobbyist for Big Tobacco.
That man is Nick Naylor, who is played with smarmy confidence and square-jawed conviction by Aaron Eckhart. Naylor is a vice-president of the Academy for Tobacco Studies, which is nothing more than a studiously named lobbying front for the major tobacco companies. Naylor is loathed by everyone in the world except tobacco executives and smokers, and part of his charm is that he knows that and is okay with it. He is so good at talking--as he puts it, as long as you argue correctly, you can never be wrong--that he derives moral satisfaction from the fact that he's putting his natural talents to good use. In his own mind, he's standing up for the underdog because, after all, who is going to defend the companies that produce cigarettes, a product that ostensibly kills thousands of people a day?
The film is populated with a universe of slightly exaggerated characters who stand in for the various industries that make up the political/economic base of American life. The tobacco industry is represented by the aging "Captain" (Robert Duvall), who has been alive so long he remembers the halcyon days when there wasn't a place you couldn't smoke, and B.R. (J.K. Simmons), Naylor's caustic immediate superior who barks orders like a constantly flustered general. Opposing Naylor and his crusade to convince people to stop demonizing cigarettes is Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy), a Birkenstock-wearing politician from Vermont who has cornered the market on self-aggrandizing liberal outrage and is pushing a bill that would label all cigarette boxes with a skull-and-crossbones symbol. Naylor finds comfort in his weekly lunch gatherings with the other members of the so-called "MOD Squad" (the letters stand for "Merchants of Death"), which also includes lobbyists for the liquor and firearms industries (Maria Bello and David Koechner).
If Thank You for Smoking has a weakness, it is in the relationship between Naylor and his young son, Joey (Cameron Bright). Joey is a bit too much of a cipher, in that he exists largely to represent an unfinished mind that has not yet been crushed in a liberal or conservative mold. In other words, he is truly able to think for himself, and he seeks any and all information at his disposal. His relationship with his father is also meant to humanize Naylor, although it's really not needed; for all his rough edges and morally questionable behavior, Naylor is one of the must human characters I've seen in a major film in quite some time.
Thank You for Smoking was based on the 1994 novel by Christopher Buckley, and first-time writer/director Jason Reitman (son of Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman) nails the tone of Buckley's satire, making the film version both hilarious and incisive. Reitman throws a lot of tricks at the screen, including freeze-frames, subtitles, illustrations, quirky old songs, and a crucial voice-over narration that gives us direct insight into Naylor's confident state of mind, but the film never feels desperate or forced. Rather, Reitman's catch-all approach fits the material like a glove, giving it a fluid sense of narrative and a relentless political point of view, even as it skewers characters from all points on the political spectrum, not to mention Hollywood itself (incarnated by Rob Lowe as an unctuous, faux-cultured producer and Adam Brody as his fawning assistant). Some might argue that, by skewering virtually everyone right and left, Reitman's film eschews a point of view, but what that argument misses is that all of the film's characters ultimately represent the same thing: a desire to manipulate the public.
The ultimate ideal in Thank You for Smoking is true freedom--not the kind that gets handed to you on a silver platter and is buffered by meaningless platitudes, but rather the kind that enables you to destroy yourself. Freedom requires responsibility, a crucial element that has been lost in our litigious age in which the first impulse is to blame someone else for our own bad decisions. What Reitman's film correctly and succinctly points out is that smoking, like anything else, is ultimately a choice, one that should be made after weighing all the information pro and con. If the tobacco industry can be blamed for manipulating scientific studies and trying to con impressionable young people into picking up an addictive and potentially deadly habit (which they do), then it is all the more important for parents to arm their children with contrary information and, most importantly, eventually step back and allow their children to make the decision for themselves. It's scary, but that's true freedom.
Copyright © 2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © 2006 20th Century Fox