“Michael Jordan plays ball. Charlie Manson kills people. I talk.”
Nick Naylor, a Tobacco Lobbyist from "THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING"
In terms of modern day scourges that kill
people on an annual basis, nothing can top cigarettes.
Sure, alcohol is a
terrible cause of fatalities every year, but their numbers are relatively
small compared to tobacco (approximately 80-100,000 deaths per year in the
What about say…guns? A paltry number, if statistics
mean anything. Firearm related deaths only account for about 11,000
deaths per year in the US.
Seriously, in terms of the ultimate “merchant
of death,” no one product decimates more people than cigarettes. They can
take full credit for slaying about 400-500,000 people annually. That’s
nearly 1100 dead a day as a result of these “cancer sticks.” By
comparison, guns only kill about 30 people a day and alcohol only about
219. Clearly, those small little buts are our single largest mass
This, of course, begs many to ask a
fundamental question: how do the people that work for the big tobacco
companies sleep at night? Do they have any sense of shame in knowing –
full well – that their “product” kills more people than anything else
every year? I think that the answer to the very first question
is…well…they probably sleep a-okay every night.
Tobacco is a billion dollar business that
facilitates a basic customer demand for product. Worldwide there are over
5 trillion cigarettes manufactured every year to meet this demand.
Phillip Morris alone makes upwards of $80 billion in revenue every year.
Yes, the product is highly addictive and using it can lead to enormous
health related risks. Yet, it’s impossible to overlook the numbers.
Despite the fact that cigarette sales have plunged for two decades and
that legal liabilities directed towards the tobacco companies are reaching
trillions, the business of selling the biggest merchant of death
seems immune to outside efforts to curtail it. Tobacco sells, regardless
of whether or not you put warnings on the packaging or even if you
literally were to put an image of a skull and crossbones with the word
“poison” underneath it on the packaging.
Surely, it would take a highly amoral
person to work for tobacco companies. In many ways, these men and
women that work for some of the most successful businesses on the planet
are really easy targets. Yet, are they? On a more abrasive and
troublesome level, they are simply business people that are providing a
product. How is this different then…say…McDonald’s selling Big Macs?
Poor diet and physical inactivity kills nearly a quarter of a million
people a year. Hmmm…if you put a “poison label” on cigarette packaging
because it kills people from prolonged use, should McDonald’s do the same
because the fat and cholesterol content in their product leads to clogged
arteries and a potential for heart diseases and heart attacks?
Is this comparison way off base?
Maybe (I would argue that I don't know of one reported case in North
America of anyone getting sick from second-hand Big Mac eating),
but the point here is that the inherent debate about the business of
tobacco is a largely polarizing one. I guess that I don’t have so much a
problem with tobacco as a business (I don’t recall anyone forcing
me to buy cigarettes against my will; it’s all a matter of consumer
choice), but I do seem to have a problem with the notion of lobbyists
who will cheerfully go out of their way to tell a nation that there is
no proof that smoking can kill you. Yup. Sure. Uh-huh.
These people represent a different type of evil altogether.
However, that is the subtle genius of the
intelligent and subversive new satire, THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING. The film
follows the exploits of a tobacco lobbyist from his own perspective. The
lobbyist in question is not the unethical and unprincipled monster that
you really think he is. Nick Naylor - as portrayed rather brilliantly in
a performance of detached strength by Aaron Eckhart - is a lobbyist that
has been demonized by the media. People hate this guy's guts, probably
because he secures a decent living at being the ultimate spin-doctor for
the Academy of Tobacco Studies. As one character tells him, he is so
hated that he has been “pinned as a mass murderer, blood sucker, pimp,
profiteer and...a yuppie Mephistopheles.” Of course, Nick brushes it all
off with his winning smile and unscrupulous sense of logic. “I have a
bachelor’s degree in kicking ass and taking names,” he says over the voice
Much like Nicolas Cage's weapons trader in
last year's involving
LORD OF WAR, Nick
never sees himself as the cruel and vile creature that many have labeled
him as. At face value, he really comes across as a decent chap.
He’s good looking, well tailored, incredibly well spoken, and has a
bravado and charm about him that makes people instinctively listen and pay
attention. He’s good…really good at what he does. He’s so good
that he manages to convince a once angry audience at a taping of “The Joan
Lunden Show” to turn over to his prerogative.
We are introduced to him at the show's
taping as he is sitting next to a 15-year-old cancer patient that is bald
from chemotherapy and as decided not to smoke anymore. Yet, against these
odds, Nick is able to incredibly convince the audience of his point of
"It's in our best
interests to keep Robin alive and smoking," he explains. "The anti-smoking
people want Robin to die." The audience then applauds and the young boy
ends up shaking his hand. By his own admission, Nick never apologizes for
what he does. “My job requires a certain...moral flexibility.” Yeah…no
THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING never paints him in a
truly unflattering light, which is why I think that the satire of the film
works with such a razor-sharp, witty, and acute sense for dark laughs.
The movie is painfully funny not because it takes easy shots at
Nick. The laughs are mostly generated not because he is a misguided
fool. He is a confident and assured person who walks a big walk and talks
an ever bigger walk. There is such an infectious level of
unbridled anticipation with the character in terms of the way we really
never know what crazy thing he’s going to spew out next. As he wisely
points out, he never has to prove that he’s right; he let’s his acute
logic do all of the convincing.
This is clear in an early scene in the film
where he visits his son Joey’s (Cameron Bright) classroom on the day where
fathers tell the class what they do for a living. There are the other
regulars present (fireman, lawyers, etc), but a tobacco lobbyist is
a new one (in one of the film’s funniest lines, Joey pleads with his dad
before he comes in to “not ruin his childhood.”). When Nick does come in
some of the children scold him when they discover what he really does.
One little girl tells him that her mother said that “smoking is bad for
you.” Nick responds with his characteristic, pugilistic poise and
confidence. “Oh, is your mommy a doctor? A scientific researcher of some
kind? If not, then she’s hardly a credible expert then, is she?”
There are even more unrelentingly funning
and equally scathing moments in the film. It’s almost as if the film
should have came with its own Surgeon General’s warning stating
that "many scenes will cause you to bowl over with incredulous laughter,
often at things that you really should not because of their distasteful
and politically incorrect nature." Consider one small masterstroke scene
where Nick is called on by his boss, “The Captain” (Robert Duvall) to
visit a Hollywood agent to try to convince him to make his stars smoke
more in films. Why? Because they want to try to re-sell the
American public the concept that smoking is "cool" again.
The agent, Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe) reveals
his plans to have Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones star in a futuristic
sci-fi film where they will have a scene of bare naked sex in zero-G
followed by them smoking. “But, wouldn’t they blow up in the all oxygen
environment, “ Nick ponders. “Probably," Jeff responds, “But it's an easy
fix. One line of dialogue. Thank God we invented the... you know, whatever
device.” This scene alone is both uproariously funny and a bit scary at
the same time, maybe because it does hit a bit too close to
reality. Jeff’s plan, of course, is great for the tobacco companies.
Nick’s superior (the very, very funny J.K Simmons) realizes the
brilliance of Jeff’s plan. Maybe because his proposed film is set in the
future and it occurs after a successful tobacco lobby when smoking is not
deemed as dangerous anymore.
There are countless other moments that are
small masterpieces of mood and defiant, macabre comic energy. There’s a
brilliantly conceived moment where Nick arrives with a suitcase full of
money to the original Marlboro Man who is now cancer stricken (played well
by Sam Elliot) as a bribe to shut him up. His argument as to why he
will take the money and not say a word to the press is sort of
brutally honest and true. Nick also has a brief fling with a news
reporter (Katie Holmes) where he reveals his true motives for doing what
he does. There are also some deliciously droll scenes that involve Nick’s
weekly dinners with two other members of the “merchants of death,” the gun
lobbyist (David Koechner), and the alcohol lobbyist (Maria Bello). They
all humorously argue as to which industry claims the most lives. They
also dryly refer to themselves as The Mod Squad.
Finally, Nick has to square off with an
antagonist (or is he really the protagonist?) in the form of
Senator Ortolan Finistirre (the great William H. Macey) who is a Vermont
environmentalist that desperately wants to pass legislation that will
require all cigarette packaging to feature a logo of a skull and
crossbones with the term “poison” underneath it. Of course, the imagery
is crucial for effect; this way, non-English speaking people will
understand that smoking is bad for you. When the two inevitably square
off at a Senate Committee Macey explains that the labels are needed to
tell people that don’t know that smoking is bad for them that it is
– in fact – really bad for you. Nick gives an unconvinced shake of
his head and sort of rightfully responds that Finistirre comes from a
state that is a huge cheese exporter and that excessive cheese eating can
lead to heart problems. “Maybe you should put a skull and crossbones on
the cheese you guys make," he challenges.
THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING is such a solid and
strongly mounted satire that I was surprised that it was made by a novice
big-screen director, Jason Reitman (29-year-old son of Ivan). He wrote
the screenplay based on the original novel by Christopher Buckley and
what’s truly amazing is how much mileage he gets out of the material (the
film is a brisk 92 minutes). His pacing is exemplary and his keen eye for
morbid laughs is noteworthy. THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING is the embodiment of
what I think great satire should be: it’s fierce, unrepentant,
feverishly paced, more than a little socially irresponsible, and
definitely has a nice blend between large, farcical gags and more subtle,
morally repugnant laughs. Not only that, but the film also generates
one of the more interesting screen personas of the year in Nick Naylor.
It’s kind of bizarre how impulsively we root for the guy despite his
sometimes questionable and rash ambitions. Nick never truly commands our
ridicule or even hate. He’s a likeable and affable chap that just happens
to perform a duty that I despise. You leave the film both simultaneously
liking and not respecting him. It’s a fiendishly challenging role.
I think that’s why THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING is a
small gem of a film; it shows people that work in highly questionable
professions that have their hearts in the right place, but maybe not their
heads. The film is devilishly smart and sarcastic and never tries to let a
decidedly more modern day penchant for ethics and political correctness get
in its way of being fiendish (and honest) with its humor. No one is really
spared from this film’s satirical fangs; it shreds all groups with equal
veracity. It also does not soft-pedal its subject matter and make it more
easily digestible for contemporary audiences. Cigarettes are a moral
evil in the sense that they kill half a million people in the US
annually, but consumers that crave and want them also willingly purchase
them. The tobacco executives (at least those in the film) never try to
pompously hide behind these notions. As one executive wisely points out,
“We don't sell Tic Tacs, we sell cigarettes. And they're cool, available,
and addictive. The job is almost done for us!”
Sometimes, the truth is even