Thank You for Smoking
directed by Jason Reitman
(FoxSearchlight, 2005)

This is an intelligent, excellent satirical film, so don't get caught up in the title, for I think it can be misleading. Smokers, for example, will likely suspect this film of being a vengeful attempt to make Big Tobacco look like Satan's most loyal servants, while anti-tobacco's attack dogs may suspect some hidden agenda to actually make smoking look cool. Neither would be correct.

Thank You for Smoking launches its barbs into both sides of the tobacco conflict, shining a good bit of the harsh light of truth onto both. No matter which side you're on, you can enjoy this brilliant little film.

The sad fact is that the debate over smoking often has nothing to do with cigarettes; it's really all about money and power and politics. Obviously, many people oppose smoking for very sincere reasons, but some politicians jump on board merely as a means to power and influence. In this movie, they're represented by Vermont's Senator Ortolan K. Finistirre (William H. Macy), who is leading the effort to put a large poison label on cigarettes. He's not exactly all heart, though: berating his assistant for not choosing someone obviously on death's door for his "cancer boy," lamenting that one of his enemies didn't actually die after being attacked by anti-smoking vigilantes and generally engaging in the same kind of self-profiting spin as the representatives of Big Tobacco.

Finistirre's nemesis is Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), the smooth-talking de facto spokesman for the tobacco industry. Eckhart's brilliant performance keeps the film far away from the many pitfalls that would seem to dominate the landscape for this kind of satire. Naylor is almost untouchably good at his job, able to deftly and quickly take a hostile crowd and win them over (or at least stave them off) with his defense of freedom and personal choice in America. Why does he do what he does? That's never definitively answered, but paying the mortgage is alluded to by Nick and several other characters. One thing that Nick alone has, however, is a human and sympathetic persona, as revealed in his relationship with his son. The presence of the boy adds to the story's otherwise absurdist atmosphere, as we watch the boy look up to and begin to emulate his father's debating skills. More than that, it shows us a human side to Nick, and that is something this film almost had to have in order to succeed.

Nick's character is sort of morally ambivalent, but you can't help but like him -- and he certainly comes off in a better light than Finistirre and a reporter played (passably at best) by Katie Holmes. Nick should have known better than to sleep with a journalist, as Heather Holloway goes about doing her job much the same way Nick goes about doing his. Her only concern is the story and the attention it will bring her. She and Finistirre, much more than Nick and his fellow spokesmen from the alcohol and firearms industries (who jokingly refer to themselves as the MOD [Merchants of Death] Squad and argue over which of their products is more deadly), are the real villains of the story. Even if and when they might do the right thing, they do it for all the wrong reasons. Nick may engineer good spin for Big Tobacco, but at least he doesn't pretend to be someone he isn't.

The film features a surprisingly good cast (excepting Holmes, whose "steamy" scene with Eckhart is almost too far away from the camera to be seen with the naked eye), including the likes of Eckhart, Elliott, Macy, Robert Duvall, Rob Lowe and -- in a really funny cameo -- Dennis Miller. Jason Reitman may be a young filmmaker, but he really nailed just about every aspect of this film. Making a film about Big Tobacco that never deviates from its satirical position to moralize either for or against smoking, skewers all concerned parties equally, defies the dangerous modern-day obsession with political correctness and maintains a consistently intelligent, funny atmosphere throughout, is quite an accomplishment indeed. Unless you simply can't take a joke, you're going to enjoy this movie.

review by
Daniel Jolley

28 August 2010

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