This movie is not about smoking. If you find you learned something new about smoking from this movie, you have been living under a rock for the past 7 years. Why seven? Because back in 1999 a little movie called The Insider came out. If you missed it, do yourself a favor, rent it, and go see Thank You For Smoking. The former movie is about smoking, the latter – is about public relations. It’s about perceptions, about power of argument. The main character, tobacco lobbyist Nate Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) says at one point that “if you argue correctly, it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong”. And that’s exactly why this film came out of nowhere last fall at Toronto Film Fest, and has been quickly snatched up by a bigger studio. The current wide release is very small, but it’s building on word-of-mouth.
It’s appealing to people despite unpleasant subject matter. It’s appealing because the movie, just like its main character has “certain moral flexibility”. The film is very entertaining and extremely quotable. Even if you don’t like the characters or their motivations, you can’t help but side with them – they’re having fun doing this, and they’re succeeding. You know you’re rooting for the bad guys, but you go along for the ride, because it’s so much fun.
You see, Nate Naylor is a successful tobacco lobbyist, who’s going through a little life crisis. He’s about to visit his son’s school and give a speech on his job, when he realizes just how badly people think of his profession. Lobbyists are not popular people, especially if they argue on behalf of tobacco companies. Nate knows it, and doesn’t give a shit, except that look in his son’s eyes. “Don’t ruin my childhood”, he says, and Nate begins to analyze what it is he does, for what purpose and to what extent. The movie is a satire with a big heart. Nate knows right from wrong, but he’s so good at arguing, he’ll argue for anyone, even tobacco companies. Besides, it’s not like “we’re forcing cigarettes down people’s throats”. It’s a choice, and using this logic, Nate jumps from press conference to public appearance, protecting, and even saving the tobacco industry from public backlash.
Occasionally, he meets with other lobbyists – firearms (David Coechner), and alcohol (Maria Bello). Their meetings are usually in a dark, small restaurant, over a lavish meal and have a feeling of old mafia movies. I think that’s the point. What these three discuss after hard day’s work would have been considered plotting and conspiracies a few decades ago. Nowadays things are different. As these people discuss their latest “victories”, the audience chuckles, rooting them along – and knowing perfectly well that these people give more power to the big bad arms, booze and cigs corporations. More power and more money. Still, it’s a riot every time they meet to talk about the trade.
The movie almost has no characters with redeeming qualities (perhaps the son, and the former Marlboro man who’s joining the ranks of public outraged at tobacco companies’ shenanigans). Even these two cannot stand up to the rest of the cast (Rob Lowe – a sleazy film producer, trying to find a way to promote movie smoking even further). Wait a second, a movie that criticises smoking is in a way promoting it as well. Nevermind, I’m over-analyzing this. It’s still not about the subject of smoking. It’s about the power of debate. Even Katie Holmes, a journalist out to get Nate and spill his secrets onto newspaper headlines is eventually all about the headlines.
Good intentions get skewed, kind and moral people are fried in the process, and still the audience chuckles and laughs along. You know you got a good script when everyone’s rooting for the bad guys, almost for all of them. As long as the bad guys can convince you of their righteousness, you passed the exam. Come in, listen to the conversations, be a fly on the wall, learn a few things about debating, and if you happen to light one up because of the high energy, go ahead.
And thank you for smoking. We know EXACTLY how you feel, and what you need. Don’t forget your booze and bullets on the way out. This film is a bright shiny satire that makes the usually dark topics a little easier to bear. You can dislike these characters later, and think twice about your tax money, about your local journalists, and your city council. For now, watch how these people operate.