Thank You for Smoking is a very funny film that is not in the main about smoking. Rather it is a film about spin – with smoking being just about the most difficult product of all to spin.
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is the chief executive of the Academy of Tobacco Studies. His job is to defend cigarettes against the anti-smoking lobby, and to challenge and confound the overwhelming evidence that smoking kills. This apparently academic body is, of course, funded by the tobacco industry.
Naylor carries out this seemingly impossible task with great success. Appearing on a television chat show beside a young cancer victim he slays the opposition, announces that the academy will pour a large amount of money into cancer research, and ends up posing as the boy’s best friend and ally.
Naylor loves the challenge of his job. He has no trouble with the morality, or lack of it, involved. He adores the hero worship he receives from his young son – and even tries to guide him to defend the indefensible.
He regularly meets up with two fellow lobbyists in what they call the M.O.D. Squad – the “Merchants of Death”. One represents the alcohol industry, the other the gun lobby. They marvel at their own ability to defend their corners, each vying with the other as to who is representing the industry responsible for the highest death toll.
All of this would seem pretty straightforward – Naylor the immoral baddy and his fellow conspirators against the good guys – but the film is about spin, therefore the proponents are themselves part of the spin.
So Naylor for all his amorality is actually a very likeable character. His main opponent, the anti-smoking Portola Finistirre (senator for Vermont) comes across as wearily self serving, and in his own way cynical. For instance he attacks one of his aides for supplying a rather too healthy looking cancer victim for the chat show.
Christopher Buckley, who wrote the book on which the film is based, says the idea came to him while watching a chat show where a woman from the Tobacco Institute kept challenging her opponents with the refrain, “Where’s the data? Show me the data.”
It occurred to him that she seemed a perfectly normal human being, and he became intrigued by the idea that someone could “get up mornings, brush their teeth, have breakfast, kiss the kids and go off and sell – death”.
So the film doesn’t demonise – it spins. Nor does it spare Hollywood from the gaze. Naylor comes up with a brilliant idea to get Hollywood actors to smoke in a futuristic film which allows him to imply that smoking has a future, and is safe and glamorous. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Brad Pitt will be seen rolling around naked in a haze of cigarette smoke.
As opposed to this imagined movie nobody is actually ever seen smoking in Thank You for Smoking. There is even a brilliant moment where classic Hollywood scenes which involve smoking are doctored so that there are no longer cigarettes in them.
However, Naylor’s libido gets him into trouble when he spills rather too many beans to a female journalist. When asked how he can justify what he does he announces, “To pay the mortgage.” Ironically when he challenges the journalist for betraying pillow talk she uses exactly the same justification.
In other words, mainstream politics, the media, and big business share a lack of morals and a love for spin.
This is a hugely enjoyable, funny film in which Eckhart is brilliant, with a terrific support cast – a superb spin on spin.
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