Nick Naylor (Aaraon Eckhart) can disarm any argument, twist any truth and sidestep any allegation. In fact, on Career Day at his son's elementary school, this Big Tobacco lobbyist is on top of his game. When a young girl says, "My mom says smoking kills," Nick begins spinning. After asking the girl if her mom is a doctor or scientific researcher, he announces to the class that clearly this mom is not a creditable source. Instead, Nick—to the chagrin of the grandmotherly teacher—encourages the kids to think for themselves about smoking.
An adaptation of Christopher Buckley's 1994 novel and a darling of the Sundance Film Festival, Thank You for Smoking is a slick, funny and intelligent satire with a break-through performance by Eckhart. First-time director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan) adopts a fresh satirical approach marked by self-referential filmmaking and irreverent touches reminiscent of Fight Club and Arrested Development. Scenes pause as diagrams and subtitles punch home the joke. Snarky narration by Naylor adds character and spark. Clever dialogue and wry observations hit their mark—skewering a culture in which everyone is selling something. Unfortunately, as the film continues, its somewhat bland and often ridiculous plot takes over—forcing the fresh touches to the background and nearly blunting the satirical points.
The film revolves around Nick's work as the spin doctor for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, an institution created by the major cigarette companies to deflect health concerns of their product. With teen smoking on the decline, the original Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) dying of cancer, and a liberal senator (William H. Macy) campaigning to slap skull-and-crossbones stickers on cigarette boxes, Nick has a big challenge. But the obstacles don't stop there. Nick is also distracted by a Washington reporter (Katie Holmes), a death threat, and teaching his son Joey (Cameron Bright) about the world.
Thank You for Smoking is not truly about the tobacco industry. (Fun Fact: No one is shown smoking cigarettes.) Sure, the movie does lampoon Big Tobacco for knowing the truth about health risks and merely politicizing the argument and spinning research to stay in business. But tobacco really only serves as the stage on which to satirize our culture of public relations, political correctness, and spin. No one in the movie is without an agenda. Everyone has a personal self-serving purpose and they will do whatever they can to gain advantage. For instance, Nick goes on a talk show and turns an argument about killing underage smokers right back on the senator's assistant he's debating. When the political lackey goes back to his boss, he gets a lecture in selecting more pathetic "cancer boys" to pull in public sympathy. They need big sad eyes and wheelchairs, the senator explains.
Because everyone in the movie is working their own angles, it is interesting to observe two things: 1) How each character does it, and 2) what it means for truth and morals. Not every character manipulates opinion and truth the way Nick does. Instead, they each use their specific skills to achieve what they need. Nick uses his gift of argument. Holmes' reporter uses her body and sexuality. And a Hollywood assistant (wonderfully played by The OC's Adam Brody) uses a big grin, friendly demeanor, and fake charm. This paints a pretty sad portrait of our culture. Selfishness rules the day. The notion of "personal freedom" is repeatedly shown to be the biggest tool of anyone trying to push a particular—even harmful—platform. Morals, as Nick says, are "flexible"—if existent. And truth loses any real value when it can be manipulated and sold.
The film clearly—and repeatedly—hammers home the point that in our culture, any viewpoint can be defended with the right tactics, regardless of truth or ethics. It's about how you sell it. It's a valid and thought-provoking idea—especially for believers of biblical truth. It challenges audiences to think about what methods and messages they're buying into. But Thank You's satire isn't much more directed or sharper than that. Some viewers may wish for a more focused attack on certain worldviews. Or for a cleaner understanding of exactly what the film is arguing. Or even for Nick Naylor or his adoring son to learn an ethical lesson. (In fact, the only lesson that Nick's son learns is to use his dad's methods to achieve what he wants.) But instead of picking apart one specific worldview or hammering home a redemptive storyline, Thank You chooses to be a character study of Nick as he figures out not whether he should be doing this, but why he does.
Some of the film's spinners really do believe in their causes. But Nick seems different. He often says that he does it in order to pay the mortgage—but also acknowledges that this is the perfect "yuppie Nuremburg defense" to get away with anything. In truth, he could do anything to pay the mortgage. Instead, Nick realizes that he argues for a living because he is good at it. It's his talent. And instead of using his gift for noble causes that a biblical worldview would advocate, Nick defends the very hardest thing to defend—cancer-inflicting products—because it is the steepest challenge he could find. And that challenge fulfills him. He declares, "Michael Jordan plays basketball. Charlie Manson kills people. I talk."
Just don't let him talk at your kids' Career Day.Discussion starters
- What characters did you see who did not have a personal agenda and spin the truth to fulfill it? What does this say? What does the movie say about politics, morals and consumerism in our culture?
- What methods of spin have you seen Christians or the church use—not to distort the truth but advocate their view? How are messages of the church different than those lobbying for political causes?
- Nick Naylor uses the argument of personal freedom several times to win arguments. How do you see the idea of choice manipulated in the movie? How can this sense of freedom be abused by our culture? How does it differ from what the Bible would call true freedom (see Gal. 5:13-15 and 1 Pet. 16-17)?
- Could you divorce yourself from morals to perform a job like Naylor's? What types of spin do you hear or say everyday?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The MPAA's warning of offensive language should be taken seriously. Thank You features a nearly constant stream of major swear words (including the Lord's name in vain). While there is no nudity, a couple is shown having sex from a distance three times in an explicit and suggestive sequence. The sexual content includes very crass and frank adult situations and conversations.
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from Film Forum, 03/30/06
Director Jason Reitman, son of director Ivan Reitman (Dave, Ghostbusters), is winning praise for his light, funny, political comedy Thank You for Smoking, which gives Aaron Eckhart of Erin Brockovich and The Core a leading role. Eckhart plays a smooth-talking tobacco lobbyist trying to defend cigarette manufacturers and polish up their reputation.
Critics are amused, but not amazed.
Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says it's "consistently amusing and acted with just the right seriocomic style. [Reitman] manages to sustain the comedy—nicely underplayed—without really losing sight of the grave issues at hand. Picture Christopher Guest melded with Michael Moore. Besides Eckhart's spectacular performance, everyone else in the cast is right on the money, and that's not just blowing smoke."
Mainstream critics are getting a buzz from it.