Nick Naylor is the chief lobbyist for "Big Tobacco," and he's the best in the business. In his own words, "Michael Jordan plays ball. Charlie Manson kills people. I talk."
Based on a book by Christopher Buckley, Thank You for Smoking follows the unapologetic Naylor as he spins for cigarettes in the major media, including an appearance on the Joan Lunden Show in which he defends the industry before a hostile studio audience while seated next to a bald teen dying of smoking-related cancer—and wins at least some of them over.
Naylor's other missions include meeting a Hollywood super-agent in an attempt to pay filmmakers to feature more "cool smoking" in their movies and buying off the dying-of-lung-cancer "Marlboro Man" to get him to stop bad-mouthing smoking in the press. All the while, the supremely confident Naylor is trying to be a good role model for his adoring son Joey while teaching him the virtues of "argument" as a profession.
Naylor's best friends are lobbyists for "Big Alcohol" and "Big Firearms." They jokingly call themselves the "Merchants of Death." His chief rival is a Birkenstock-wearing Senator pushing a bill to label all cigarette packages as poison with a large skull-and-crossbones symbol.
It's difficult to nail down positives in a movie that's so thoroughly satirical. The book upon which the film is based has been claimed both by Republicans and Democrats as championing their positions on the issues of smoking legislation and personal freedom. Chances are that anyone with strong feelings on those issues will, similarly, find messages on the big screen to make them feel vindicated—and targeted.
Having said that, Smoking's one clear virtue—and the source of its laugh-out-loud humor—is the way in which it bracingly bulldozes political correctness by revealing the "true motives" of all the parties involved to make way for something approaching an honest conversation. Its main message is that nearly everyone in our media culture is spinning the facts to gain advantage. Agreed. However, the film stops short of suggesting any helpful response to that. (More on this in the "Conclusion.")
On a more basic level, it's clear that Naylor loves his son and wants the best for him. (However, he apparently thinks that will be found in re-creating Joey as himself. Naylor also seems to violate their relationship in one key moment.)
Naylor says drinking a particular wine will "make you believe in God." He's regularly referred to as Satan or the devil for protecting Big Tobacco and selling cigarettes to the American public. A man says that even Jesus Christ would describe a certain action as being "mighty white of you boys."
Sex is crudely—and repeatedly—discussed. Naylor tells his ex-wife's boyfriend that he's just the guy "f---ing" Joey's mom. Naylor also says his organization needs to find a way to put the sex back in smoking. A Hollywood agent crudely describes a potential scene in a sci-fi movie in which two big stars could have sex in outer space and then start smoking.
Naylor and his friends use crude language to talk about a young reporter's breasts (repeatedly using the word "t-ts") and whether she'll use them to seduce Naylor. She does. The camera briefly watches the (clothed) pair having sex (with movement) in several rooms of his home. It also sees her on top of him in a longer scene in which she uses the f-word to ask for sex. He obliges, again (no explicit nudity).
A man menaces another with a rifle. Nick's life is threatened on live TV. A man is kidnapped, stripped, and his body is covered with nicotine patches in an attempt to kill him.
The three "merchants of death" debate whose product kills the most people. Cigarettes easily beats both alcohol and firearms with 1,200 deaths every day. The lobbyist for Big Firearms is said to have joined the Army so he could shoot college students during the protests of the '60s and '70s. Instead, he ended up in Vietnam, where we see him shot in the arm.
Crude or Profane Language
In addition to five or so uses of God's and Jesus' names for swearing, the f-word is uttered over 20 times and the s-word a half-dozen times. In addition to milder profanities, crude language includes repeated slang (some of it obscene) for various parts of the male and female anatomy.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Obviously, cigarettes are the central focus of the film. The tobacco industry and its product are outrageously defended to humorous effect. But we also hear plenty about the negative health impact of cigarettes. One character dies from a smoking-related condition. Another is close. A third almost dies from the nicotine patch assault. He is said to have survived only because of the tolerance built up over a lifetime of smoking.
Several characters drink. One is the lobbyist for Big Alcohol. She complains of having a hard week, because of a big news story on fetal alcohol syndrome.
Other Negative Elements
A tobacco baron called The Captain says that he went to Korea to shoot Chinese people, and now they're his best customers. Naylor makes a presentation to Joey's class for a parental career day in which he humorously challenges the scientific credibility of a little girl's mother for saying that "cigarettes kill" and urges the kids to challenge authority.
Jason Reitman's feature debut is a smart and funny film. (It also wields considerable R-rated content.) Building on Buckley's book, he succeeds in lampooning both the tobacco industry's ridiculously bold defense of its killer product and legislation-happy politicians. His cast delivers likable, winning performances. In what could have been a difficult role, Aaron Eckhart fits effortlessly into Naylor's "morally flexible" shoes. He's completely charming and persuasive spouting his reprehensible spin.
In fact, the film's humor bursts from his deliveries of the most politically incorrect statements imaginable with utter conviction and sincerity. Naylor talks with the skill of a trial lawyer whose courtroom is popular opinion. Somehow, he gets away with telling an audience that cigarette companies hate it when smokers die because they lose customers. Or despairing over the passing of Hollywood's golden age of smoking because of the whole "health issue." Or answering his son's question about what makes the American government the greatest in the world by saying, "Our endless appeals system."
Of course, Thank You for Smoking is not really about cigarettes. In a way, it's about integrity. It wonders if there's really such a thing as truth. Naylor is forced to ask himself if the morality of what we do to pay the mortgage really matters. Is the greatest triumph simply found in winning the argument, in beating the system, in getting away with it? Is it more important to find the real truth and adhere to it or just to construct a version of the truth most likely to protect your own personal freedom?
Reitman's film never really answers the questions it raises. It's too busy getting us to laugh at the skillful spinmeisters who form our perceptions. But its silence on those answers is a kind of answer in itself: It doesn't really matter. Nick Naylor owned the audience at my screening. We cheered for him and against the Senator who wants to label cigarettes as poison. The Senator is too judgmental and self-righteous. Worse, he just cares too deeply about his ideas of "right" and "wrong."
In that way, the film taps into a seismic cultural shift by fiendishly positioning its hero as the champion of a public "enemy" and getting us to agree, in principle, to his idea of freedom. The story's ultimate message to us isn't "light up." It's "lighten up." Truth is too slippery to hold on to. Package it however you like and sell it to the masses. Buyer beware.
This philosophy rings most hollow in Naylor's mentoring of his son in the art of spin. In re-creating himself in Joey, you can see occasional doubt in Naylor's eyes about the path he's chosen. It's in his complete inability to give Joey anything worth actually believing (beyond winning the next argument) that Reitman either captures or is captured by our culture's crisis of faith. Truth is hard to find in the age of spin. But it's out there. And according to Jesus—who wouldn't spin to save His life—it's the only path to real "personal freedom" (John 8:31-32).