Lighting up the screen

Thank You for Smoking

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, April 10, 2006


As the average American ages, public interest in music and film declines while the obsession with politics grows. Baby boomers, who spent the 1960s arguing over the Beatles v. the Stones and then the 1970s debating De Niro v. Pacino, now call in to talk radio to harangue about Republicans v. Democrats.

Hollywood was slow to catch on, but since "Fahrenheit 9/11" it's been pushing leftwing agitprop like "Syriana." While plenty of money could be made with rightwing movies, the box office slump will have to get a lot deeper before Hollywood will stoop so low as to appeal to the 51% of the public that voted the wrong way in 2004.

In the meantime, fortunately, there's the witty centrist satire "Thank You for Smoking." It's a reasonably faithful adaptation of the 1994 novel by Christopher Buckley (son of William F.) about the chief spokesman for the tobacco industry, the "yuppie Mephistopheles" Nick Naylor. Produced by David O. Sacks, a research fellow at the libertarian-conservative Independent Institute, the film's plague-on-both-your-houses attitude toward cigarette companies and their killjoy enemies probably won't make it a huge hit, but it's smart and entertaining, although more amusing than hilarious.

Young director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan, director of "Ghost Busters") has chosen his cast wisely. Robert Duvall plays a sly old North Carolina tobacco billionaire. Sam Elliott, who has been the Great American Cowboy Character Actor during a generation almost bereft of Great American Cowboy Movies, portrays a former Marlboro Man whom Nick must bribe to shut up about his lung cancer.

Katie Holmes is an ethics-free reporter who seduces Nick to advance her career. In the book, the red-headed vixen "Heather Holloway" is clearly based on the New York Times' Maureen Dowd. Holmes, who is now engaged to Tom Cruise, seems to have modeled her character on the life, however, of Katie Holmes.

As Nick, the square-jawed All-American face of tobacco on TV talk shows, Aaron Eckhart is perfectly cast. Eckhart's career as a leading man has never taken off because, with his blond hair and movie star's dimpled chin, he's annoyingly handsome. Eckhart played the meek grad student beaten down by his unmanly job in the 2002 version of A.S. Byatt's famous novel Possession, but the actor looked too much like an Enron CFO-in-training for the film to work. Like Rob Lowe (who pops up as a Mike Ovitz-style superagent), Eckhart is better suited for antiheroes, and he has a memorable one to play here. "If you argue correctly, you're never wrong," he instructs his 12-year-old son.

The Bush Era has seen the triumph of this kind of "marketing major postmodernism," the assumption, picked up vaguely in college while studying advertising, that some egghead over in Europe proved there is no such thing as truth, so why worry about the veracity of your spin?

Still, Nick is not a representative exemplar of our age of talking points because he's far more self-aware than is typical. He knows he's lying when he claims there's no scientific evidence that smoking damages your health. He just likes the challenge, the money, and, most appealingly, outwitting the self-righteous (especially when they are right).

That kind of raffish cynicism is rare. Every week I encounter writers who lie for personal and political advantage, but they're much drearier personalities. They fib fashionably about democratizing the Middle East or race or gender, and their dishonesty makes them feel better about themselves because it's in a good cause.

"Thank You for Smoking" spent 12 years in Hollywood's Development Hell, and it's showing its age. The $246 billion tobacco settlement of 1998 transformed the cigarette companies from harried prey requiring the frantic efforts of a Nick Naylor to valued junior partners of state governments. (A more contemporary client for Nick would have been the Indian gaming industry.)

Moreover, Nick's complaint that movies are anti-cigarette, that only "psychopaths and Europeans" smoke in films anymore, seems badly out of date. Oddly enough, "Thank You for Smoking" is one of relatively few movies these days where none of the stars smoke. Lighting up is presently considered the surest way to give characters that edgy "indie" attitude. That's why a study in The Lancet found that there was as much smoking in movies in 2002 as in Humphrey Bogart's heyday. Despite all its high-minded talk, Hollywood cares more about its coolness quotient than its social conscience.

Rated R for language and some sexual content.


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