New to DVD is “Thank You for Smoking,” a satirical story about Big Tobacco’s primary spokesman and how he peddles cigarettes to the American people.
“Smoking,” directed by Jason Reitman (son of legendary director Ivan “Ghostbusters” Reitman), is based on the 1994 novel by Christopher Buckley. A lot happened between publication of the novel and release of the movie—like the 1998 “master settlement agreement” between state attorneys-general and the tobacco industry, which dealt out roughly $246 billion to states for their education efforts on tobacco.
Another significant event in the interim: David O. Sacks sold PayPal to eBay in 2002. Sacks turned around and formed Room 9 Entertainment to produce stylish independent films, choosing Reitman’s adaptation of Buckley’s novel as his first project.
“Smoking” stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, vice president of the Academy of Tobacco Studies, the industry’s main lobbying organization. Naylor is perhaps the best PR man ever, issuing rapid-fire declarations about America’s freedoms and questioning his opponents’ claims in the name of science.
Naylor, you see, works for a tobacco conglomerate that has its own scientists—scientists who “could disprove gravity.” Naylor alternates between spinning their findings for the public and having lunch with the MOD squad—MOD as in “Merchants of Death,” a name Naylor has given to himself and fellow lobbyists for alcohol and firearms.
One of the movie’s gems is the table talk these three have. Naylor swaps war stories with Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) of the alcohol industry’s Moderation Council, and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner) of S.A.F.E.T.Y., which advances and defends gun ownership.
They joke about which industry kills more people, and how they plan to spin their way out of the latest bad press. As Nick says, “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”
Holding up the narrative are two storylines: Nick’s relationship with his son (Cameron Bright), who’s trying to figure out what exactly his father does for a living; and the efforts of Vermont Sen. Finistirre (William H. Macy), who grandstands for a skull-and-crossbones label on cigarettes.
So it goes with Nick doing his best to ensure that cigarettes remain attractive—a feat which shouldn’t be that difficult because, as his boss points out, cigarettes are already “cool, available and addictive.”
One of Nick’s strategies involves getting Big Tobacco to reinvest in Hollywood by making sure stars are seen smoking on screen. This approach takes Nick to Tinseltown player Jeff Megall, played with hilarious precision by Rob Lowe. Megall helps Nick concoct a plan for having Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones light up in their upcoming futuristic film.
Nick also crosses paths with the cancer-stricken Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) and a newspaper reporter (Katie Holmes) who wants to get inside the mind of Big Tobacco’s “Sultan of Spin.”
Ultimately, Nick says his job “requires a moral flexibility that goes beyond most people.” Couple Nick’s “flexibility” with his love of talking and arguing well, and the result is a man who helps us feel better about our vice, a man who questions hypocrisy in others, a man who touts freedom to the nth degree.
I found “Thank You for Smoking” slightly disappointing in that the film never surprised me: There are no clever twists, no new dilemmas presented—just a neat, filtered package of satire (which is itself difficult to pull off, no doubt).
Eckhart’s sure-footed performance as Nick Naylor is laudable, and the supporting cast is a good one. “Smoking” contains lots of bad language, so it isn’t for all audiences. But those who watch will at least grapple with how dangerous products like cigarettes are managed in the public eye.
The DVD contains several commentary tracks, deleted scenes, a couple of featurettes and “The Charlie Rose Show” interview with Jason Reitman, Aaron Eckhart, Christopher Buckley and David O. Sacks.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual content. Reviewer’s Note: Quite a bit of bad language, and a couple of distant shots of a couple having sex.
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Jason Reitman (based on the novel by Christopher Buckley)
Cast: Nick Naylor: Aaron Eckhart; Polly Bailey: Mario Bello; Bobby Jay Bliss: David Koechner; Heather Holloway: Katie Holmes; Lorne Lutch: Sam Elliott; Joey Naylor: Cameron Bright; Sen. Finistirre: William H. Macy; B.R.: J.K. Simmons; The Captain: Robert Duvall; Jeff Megall: Rob Lowe; Jill Naylor: Kim Dickens.
The movie’s official Web site is here.