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June 20, 2006

Richard D. North - himself no stranger to defending unpopular causes - asks, how good a portrayal of those who defend the "indefensibles" is Thank You for Smoking? Thank You for Smoking - Jason Reitman

Posted by Richard D. North

Thank You for Smoking
Written and Directed by Jason Reitman
Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley
certificate 15, 2005

Hundreds of years ago when God was a boy, Thank You For Smoking would have been a Doris Day movie in which Tony Randall, Rock Hudson or James Garner (as marketing whizzes) would have been putting the theories of Vance Packard or Edward Bernays to the test and falling in love in the end with the suburban way of decency.

Well, time has passed and we've all become more innocent. In Doris' day, blame was not an industry. Malraux was reported to have said (in about her time) that he had found there to be no grown-ups: it's far truer now.

In Thank You For Smoking, the best - the only necessary - argument Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), our professional lobbyist, can put is saved until last when he testifies before the cholesterol king, Senator Finistirre from the dairy state of Vermont (slime-balled with style by William H Macy). Until then, his case for Big Tobacco had been rather feeble in the sense that he seemed to be defending what nobody has tried to defend for years: the idea that tobacco might not be that harmful. In the closing scenes, he lobs, as a bombshell, the admission that it is a killer and asserts that people have a right to use it if they want. If he had played that knock-down argument earlier, the movie would have died of good sense.

Out in the real world, the most recent embarrassment for the industry has been the occasion in 1994 when seven of its CEOs lined up before a congressional committee to declare that tobacco wasn't addictive. It was sensible of them to dissemble since to put cigarettes out there with heroin would have been commercial suicide as well as intellectually flawed. The movie refers to this moment, but wrenches it out of context.

Come on, Richard: it's only a story. Well yes, and as such it has its flaws. There are all kinds of things a media-savvy lobbyist would do when meeting a female journalist out to profile him, and having her swing from every horizontal fixture in his apartment isn't one of them. What's more, a profile-writer wouldn't be so foolish as to try the stunt either. The only truthful thing about this encounter is that he makes it work to her disadvantage in the end.

At one point, Nick is kidnapped by anti-tobacco activists and they aim to kill him with nicotine patches. But, hey, because he's a smoker (the film didn't have the courage to show him doing it, I notice), he's got a degree of immunity, so he lives and their stunt backfires. But of course, it would have anyway. It is one of the oddities of the antis' game that they lose when they win. The ALF, for instance, only started getting bad media coverage when they liberated masses of mink, and it wasn't until Greenpeace sank Shell's disposal option for the Brent Spar that journalists bestirred themselves to take a sceptical look at the wet-suited crusaders.

There's a lot that's good about the movie, and it's stuff which is usually not even attempted. Where else do a father and bright pre-teen discuss the difference between an argument and a negotiation? Where else, what's more, is it noted that the one true necessity of PR is to win arguments by being on the money? It's a great moment when Nick says:

It's your job to be hated. It's your job to be right.
PRs don't have to tell the whole truth, that's for sure, but the truth they tell must be persuasive, and preferably testable. And of course, they have to assume that everything will come out sooner or later, and probably pretty quickly.

The curious thing about great PR is that it isn't even casuistical and it certainly isn't a schmooze. Rather, it's brutal: a reality check. I have spent a fair amount of time being a little ray of sunshine beamed out of the belly of the beast, and I hugged myself as I realised that I have been lined up with most of the "indefensibles" mentioned in the movie. It was a roll-call of honour. It's striking how often a defender of the goings-on of the real world would prefer to be judged by someone who had actually been, say, to a logged forest in Washington State or Borneo, or a fur farm in Finland or Denmark, or a trap line in Canada, or an oil well in Colombia or Ogoniland, or on a whaling ship. (I'd have added: or a seal-laden ice floe, as the movie does: but that's the card that is missing from my own pack.) Whoever said that one is most reactionary about the things one knows best was right.

Aaron Eckhart's playing of Nick is consistently good: he lets the niceness and virtuousness of the man grow by stealth, even as he upstages and outflanks cancer victims. But the character is not an ideal representation of the type. Or rather, there isn't an ideal of the type. In the real world I have mostly met lobbyists who seemed more principled, and some who seemed less so, than Nick. What's more, it's entirely arguable that people pick this side of the argument not merely to pay the mortgage (one of the movie's constant refrains), nor merely because it's an extreme sport (very true, and also mentioned), but because it is by far the more interesting (let alone morally proper) side to be on.

The best bits of this very intelligent film went whizzing by as parentheses and vignettes. Nick's son is played by a wonderful boy (Cameron Bright), who was a cross between Elvis Presley and a Botticelli angel. His growing interest in and sympathy with his father was a maturing of understanding. He bypasses smart-ass on his road to cleverness. He was perhaps gaining in scepticism as he studied Old Nick, and may even have acquired some cynicism, but he was also exercising his mind and thrilled to be learning how to do so.

There are lovely moments with Nick's confreres in the MoD Sqad (the Merchants of Death), each yearning to be the baddest of the group. Rob Lowe is magical as the Hollywood agent who has catapulted himself to a higher plane: he is in Denial Heaven, whence so many great movies have spun forth to thrill, entertain and befuddle us. But, typically of this enterprise, it is the agent's PA who's given the best lines.

This little offering is funny and sharp.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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