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April 2, 2006

Thank You for Smoking

On one of the Sunday morning gabfests, Linda Chavez observed that one of the reasons that interest in lobbying reform had faded is that a cynical public "already" thinks that everyone in Washington is corrupt and that the recent scandals involving Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed confirm that. Of course, the idea that everyone is corrupt implies that any real reform is due to fail. This cynicism seems to be general spirit of Jason Reitman's entertaining but hollow Thank You for Smoking (IMDB), an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's satirical novel (which I haven't read). Reitman's film focuses on uber-charmer, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a spokesperson for Big Tobbaco.

Smoking opens with Naylor appearing on an episode of Joan Lunden's TV show alongside of a 15-year old who developed lung cancer from cigarette smoking and various anti-smoking lobbyists. But Naylor manages to charm the audience, pledging money to "research" the effects of tobacco and even manages to turn anti-smoking lobbyists into villains: "It's in our best interests to keep Robin alive and smoking. The anti-smoking people want Robin to die." Nick's audacity, his ability to BS the audience without appearing to condescend to them, makes him an engaging figure, and he uses these skills to charm his son's class on career day, turning the students' suspicions around by playing to their antiauthoritarian impulses. In short, for Nick, everything is an argument, and nobody can argue or persuade quite like Nick. As Nick himself puts it, "Michael Jordan plays ball. Charlie Manson kills people. I talk."

Nick's success on TV wins the interest of "The Captain" (Robert Duvall), a North Carolina tobacco executive who pushes Nick to work on a pet project: getting cigarettes back into Hollywood movies (recalling, for me, Richard Klein's Cigarettes are Sublime). Knowing that audiences will not accept cigarettes in contemporary films, Nick and a slimy Hollywood superagent (Rob Lowe) imagine a futuristic space adventure in which cigarette smoking is no longer harmful and Brad Pitt blows smoke rings around Catherine Zeta-Jones' nude body.And again, we find ourselves enjoying Nick's skill in marketing cigarettes. Ultimately Nick's career falters halfway through the film. First he gives an ill-advised interview to a seductive journalist (Katie Holmes), where he admits to things that would be best left off the record. Second he also finds himself confronted by a grandstanding Vermont Senator (William H. Macy) who wants to put a "poison" label, complete with skull and crossbones (becuse some people can't read), on all cigarettes. He also endangers the reputation of his fellow "MOD Squad" ("Mercahnts of Death") lobbyists from the tobacco and alcohol industries.

I won't reveal any more about the plot, but Reitman's film seems to take for granted that we already know these guys are corrupt and that it would be too easy to simply condemn them for their actions. Instead, Nick especially, is treated gently and we see him mots often struggling to be a father and dealing with his ex-wife's disapproval over his work (The Austin Chronicle addresses Reitman's interest in the father-son relationship, which draws from Jason's relationship with his father, Ivan Reitman, director of Ghostbusters). I'll admit that I enjoyed Nick's ability to convince even the most skeptical audience of the benefits of Big Tobacco (it might even be fun to teach this film in a freshman composition course focused on argument), but the film's cynicism about lobbying actually seems to disable critique rather than making one. And after spending some time in a smoky bar in the Charlotte airport (where smoking is apparently still legal), I'm not entirely sure that "everybody knows" the harmful effects of smoking. Nick also espouses a rhetoric of "personal responsibility" that could have come from Christopher Buckley's father, William F. Buckley, which is all well and good, but calling for "personal responsibility" is often a means for allowing corporations and other institutions to avoid their responsibilities.

Posted by chuck at April 2, 2006 11:27 AM

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I think the assumption that Washington is pretty corrupt is a correct one. In addition, I think a call for personal responsibility is good because we must always remember that we do not have to be manipulated by these people and corporations if we don't want to. We have more information available if we choose to use it. In either case, perhaps you'd like to check out what I thought of the film at www.cultureasaurus.blogspot.com.

Naim Peress

Posted by: Naim Peress at April 2, 2006 8:53 PM

Naim, thanks for the comment and the link to your review. I think there might be a subtle distinction between the idea that "Washington is corrupt" and "There is a lot of corruption in Washington." I prefer to believe the latter (even if that makes me naive). The former essentially assumes a (permanent) state of being and breeds cynicism and lumps in well-intentioned non-profits with profiteers who hope to game the system, and because I interact with people who are doing good work (on immigration reform for example), I think there's a difference.

I'd also agree with your assessment that we "don't have to be manipulated," but I don't regard the Nick Naylors as merely manipulating, at least on the level of persuasive argument. The scene with Sam Elliott's "Marlboro Man" illustrates this point to some extent: sure the Marlboro Man could have refused the cash, and no, he wasn't manipulted, but did he really have a choice, given his medical expenses? The ability of advertisers (in this cse for cigarettes) is only a small issue IMHO. Naylor's more important task (and one obscured by the film) would be to campaign for legislation beneficial to tobacco companies. I don't believe that most consumers, including consumers of tobacco, are simply passive dupes who are manipulated by sexy footage of Laren Bacall getting a smoke from Humphrey Bogart. Of course, such chices aren't always fully rational, either.

Certainly consumer information is available, but cigarette companies were very slow to admit the harm their products did, and now that the information is available we've seen a steep decline in cigarette smoking. Personal responsibility is no doubt important, but Naylor's comments--in my reading--provide corporations with a bit of a cop out.

Posted by: Chuck at April 2, 2006 9:17 PM

I borrowed this book from a friend and started reading it about 8 years ago. I had to give it back before I finished, but I remember laughing so much that people on the subway looked at me strangely.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at April 5, 2006 11:48 PM

I'm somewhat curious about the book. Might make for good subway reading once I've worked through some of my other pleasure reading.

Posted by: Chuck at April 6, 2006 10:53 PM

As for there being some corruption in Washington, let me say that, being from Louisiana and having this same accusation so hypocritically thrown at us, even to the point of using it as a 'reason' to deny disaster recovery assistance to us, I'm amazed at how glibly you excuse this corruption when it occurs on your own turf. And imagine, considering the huge amount of money funneled through Washingtion (so much of it coming from oil and gas reserves taken from our poor conquered State) how much greater the corruption is there in D.C., as compared to the relative trickle of funds that come through our state. What if a natural or wartime disaster hit Washington DC? Do you think that anyone would deny assistance to Washington D.C. due to the enormous corruption that exists there?

Posted by: S.Haely at April 17, 2006 7:09 PM

Let me clarify. I'm not denying that there isn't major corruption in Washington, DC (or that Abramaoff, Reed, and DeLay shouldn't be regarded as corrupt). I'm just suggesting that Reitman's film is so glib about the specifics of corruption that it disarms any possible, specific critique of that corruption. In other words, the film seems to imply either that "Washington" is so corrupt that it is beyond reform or that the only alternative to corruption is Nick Naylor's essentially libertarian "live-and-let-live" philosophy. In the case of Thank You for Not Smoking, Naylor is seen as no less immoral (or at least no less self-serving) than the reformist Congressman (played by William H. Macy) who is campaigning against Big Tobacco.

And let me say in no uncertain terms that the depictions of New Orleans as corrupt in the name of denying funding for rebuilding and repairing the Gulf Coast, especially New Orleans, is nothing less than criminal. And I also think you're absolutely right to suggest that the lack of assistance can be attributed to some of the social class issues you mention.

Perhaps the best way of putting it: I'm suggesting that the film is essentially excusing corruption by cynically shrugging its shoulders about tobacco lobbyists like Nick Naylor.

Posted by: Chuck at April 17, 2006 10:48 PM

We saw this yesterday. It was fun, but the most honest moment in the film may have been the throwaway line about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Same story here: authenticity and self-knowledge (Kari's phrase) triumphs over the phony politcos. Naylor has authenticity in spades, the William H. Macy characer doesn't. When Nick looks the camera in the eye and says he'll buy his son his first pack on his 18th birthday if that's what he wants, that's the kind of family values that trumps whatever the audience knows, intellectually, about the dangers of smoking. That's the real message of the film, and it's an old and conservative one. The big tobacco stuff is secondary to all that, almost a MacGuffin.

Posted by: Matt K. at April 23, 2006 11:13 AM

Like you, I enjoyed the comedy. Aaron Eckhart (as Naylor) especially was great fun, but yeah, I think that's a good read on the question of "authenticity" or "self-knowldege."

Posted by: Chuck at April 23, 2006 2:42 PM

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