Thank You for Smoking

Though a bit shallow and only sporadically harp, “Thank You for Smoking” is an entertaining social satire aiming its targets at our dominant corporate culture, hypocritical morality, and obsession with Hollywood images and celebrities.

Media manipulation, political correctness, freedom of expression, and other timely issues in Bush's America of the New Millennium also get their due share in the film, based on Christopher Buckley's novel, in which new terminology like spinning was made popular (see below).

In his feature directorial debut, writer-director Jason Reitman, son of Canadian helmer Ivan (The Ghostbuster movies), shows facility with bright dialogue and ease with the technical properties of film.

However, perhaps a better reason to see the film is Aaron Eckhart, playing a Big Tobacco lobbyist, in what's easily his most accomplished work since his breakthrough film, Neil LaBute's “In the Company of Men” (1997). After years of playing supporting roles in major Hollywood films (Julia Robert's boyfriend in Erin Brockovich) and inconsequential actioners, Eckhart is placed center stage, proving he can command the screen with his charisma and considerable acting chops.

First seen on Joan Lunden's talks show attacking anti-smoking crusaders, Nick Naylor (Eckhart) is a gifted spin artist with no moral qualms about being the media spokesman for an industry that kills. He lunches regularly with the “M.O.D. Squad,” short for “Merchants of Death,” his counterparts in the alcohol and firearm industries, Polly (Maria Bello) and Bobby Jay (David Koechner).

Despite protests from his former wife Jill (Kim Dickens), who's now dating a man Nick detests, Nick exerts a powerful influence on his young son Joey (Cameron Bright). In due course, Joey is forced to absorb some useful “lessons,” the most prominent of which is: “The beauty of an argument is that if you argue correctly, you're never wrong.”

Meanwhile, a chief anti-smoking combatant, liberal Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) is lobbying to emblazon a skull-and-crossbones on every cigarette pack label. Nick is enlisted to combat the senator's plan by the Captain (Robert Duvall), who heads the Academy of Tobacco Studies.

Nick is happy to remind that old movie stars, like Bogey and Bacall, Davis and Crawford, had once made smoking an alluring and glamorous act. There's a lovely reference to the first movie Bogart and Bacall made together, To Have and Have Not, and the famous scene, in which Bacall asks for a match, a line that has entered movie lore–and catapulted Bacall to stardom.

However, Nick is appalled that at present the smokers who appear on screen are mostly “psychopaths and Europeans.” (This is a fact, by the way: The only screen characters that smoke these days are villains, likely to get punished with death in various circumstances). As a result, with no further delay, Nick heads for Hollywood to meet Zen-spouting agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe).

While Nick has to contend with death threats, a near-lethal kidnapping plot, and the angry original Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), who's now dying of cancer, the real obstacle comes from a devastating profile in the Washington Probe, written by Heather Holloway (disappointingly played by Katie Holmes).

The film's first half is bright, sharp, and funny, but the tale has problems maintaining its satirical bite, cool attitude, and cynical tone throughout the duration (even though the film is only 92 minutes long), and the abrupt ending is particularly disappointing.

Eckhart is perfectly cast as Nick, a shrewd charmer who's both amoral and immoral, always ready to flash a smug smile. Note the smirk on his face when he says on TV, “Nothing is more important than American children,” or the contempt he shows while confronting his ex-wife's lover after being reproached by him. Says Nick: “Don't forget, I'm his father, you're just the guy who fucks his mom.”

Making the most of their juicy parts are Maria Bello, in a turn that reveals a totally different face from the one she showed in A History of Violence, and Koechner. Their scenes poke fun digs at health weirdos, hypocritical liberals, and other sanctimonious types.

Also good are the aging Same Elliott, who spoofs his own image as a tough cowboy, Rob Lowe as the powerful agent, Adam Brody as his hustler assistant, J.K. Simmons as Nick's irascible Vietnam vet boss, and Duvall, who nails his role in two or three scenes, one beautifully acted in the backseat of a limo.

The film's weakest performance is given by Katie Holmes, who last year was also bad in Batman Begins. In both films, Holmes plays a journalist, but while in Batman Begins she didn't matter much, here she seems miscast as a ruthless reporter.

Strangely, the usually reliable William Macy shows difficulty in finding the right tone for his part, which may be a function of the facile conception of his liberal character.

Visually, Thanks for Smoking is at least two notches above the norm of first films. Reitman, who grew up on the movie sets of his father, must have benefited from the experience for he shows technical ease in orchestrating the sleek look of the movie, which draws on widescreen lensing from James Whitaker, and sharp editing by Dana A. Glauberman.

Score by Rolfe Kent, who composed Alexander Payne's “Sideways” last year, alternates jazzy riffs with lighter, more whimsical notes. Vintage smoking songs, by the likes of Tex Williams, the Mills Brothers and the Kingston Trio, help set the satirical mood

Thank You for Smoking world-premiered at the 2005 Toronto Festival, leading to a bidding war among distributors. Fox Searchlight (which also grabbed this year's Sundance hit Little Miss Sunshine), secured the rights for a high price. It remains to be seen how successful the picture will be with the audience.

Origins of the Satire

The book was born in 1992 during an airing of the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour, on which a young woman from a now-defunct Tobacco Institute had to contradict the other guest, a Ph.D working for a research institute that had just come up with yet another piece of evidence that smoking was bad for our health. The Tobacco Institute lady parried and thrusted, challenging every calm statement the researcher made. She kept saying, “Where is the data Show us the data. These were the origins for the character of Nick Naylor of the Academy of Tobacco Studies. What she was doing was spinning, which the dictionary defines as: verb and noun. To convey information or cast another person's remarks or actions in a biased or slanted way so as to favorably influence public opinion; information provided in such a fashion.

Buckley reports on another news story, about a spokesman of the Association of Foods With Absolutely Zero Nutritional Value, who said he was proud of the reduction of advertising budget by 6 percent. The week before, the big story concerned how the Pentagon is planting favorable news articles in the Iraqi press, a development revealed by the Los Angeles Times, which wittily quoted an Iraqi editor saying that, if my cash-strapped paper had known these stories were from the U.S. government, I would have charged much more' to publish them.”

Then there were stories about president Bushs so-called town meetings, packed with pre-screened friendlies, whose hardest-hitting questions were likely to be, Mr. President, do you wear briefs or boxers The Bush administration was caught paying commentators to promote their policies, something which is not taught at journalism school. For Buckley, the whole global culture is getting increasingly degraded and corrupt. A year ago, it was revealed that a British novelist had accepted money from a Vodka maker to mention his Vodka brand throughout her next book. Another new concept emerged: Product placement in novels!

Spin is now such a commonplace word that its hard to remember when it was first coined. Linda Wertheimer of NPR asserts that it was in 1984, after the presidential debate between Reagan and Walter Mondale. Both candidates staff, as well as high-profile supporters brought in as cheerleaders, rushed to the microphones to proclaim victory. By all accounts, Reagans performance had been particulary disastrous, but his legendary campaign manager Lee Atwater said, We're going to go out there and spin this afterward, fter which the New York Times editorial coined the term Spin Doctors.

However, according to Word Spy, the first citation of the word spin occurred before the Reagan-Mondale debate, in a Washington Post article dated March 20, 1977. The citation read: “What Pertschuk is accused of is being too ardent a consumer advocate, of lobbying' members of the committee on behalf of things he thinks are good, of putting his own philosophical 'spin' on options, of having excessive influence on Magnuson; in short, of acting like the '101st senator.'” Pertschuk, the righteous hall-monitor-like head of the U.S Federal Trade Commission, was so insufferable, he was ultimately forced to resign, after which he became the leader of the anti-smoking lobby!