Thank You For Smoking, a new comedy by Jason Reitman, is as sleek, clever and cocky as its anti-heroic protagonist, Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a hard-driving lobbyist for the tobacco industry who can turn the most unpromising PR quagmire to his own advantage with a few well-turned lies posing as rational argument. By this stage in his bushy-tailed career, Nick (who works for a sleazy outfit called the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a.k.a. Winston-Salem) barely knows the difference, or cares. As he breezily tells anyone who asks what it feels like to market death: The mortgage must be paid. Truth or falsehood, ally or adversary — all are grist for his glib mill. As the movie opens we find him on a television talk show, trouncing the seemingly impregnable arguments of the anti-tobacco lobby, whose reps have wheeled on a cancer-stricken boy (not nearly stricken enough — a fact Nick seizes on without missing a beat) for effect. A master of the rhetorical question, Nick innocently asks why the tobacco industry would want to kill a teenager it’d rather keep alive so that he can go on buying cigarettes.
Leaving his indignant audience reeling, Nick plows ahead to have his wicked way with an anti-smoking senator (William H. Macy), a muckraking Washington reporter (Katie Holmes) with whom he ends up swinging from the chandeliers (the movie must have been shot pre-Tom) and a Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott) who’s dying of lung cancer. In the equally paranoid movies of the 1970s, journalists, at least (and the occasional honest politician), were the valiant champions of integrity. It’s as much a sign of our degraded times and the death of idealism as it is a requirement of satire that now the pols and journos are every bit as corrupt as the company Nick keeps. He has no loyalties as such — there are no organization men in Thank You For Smoking, which I suppose makes it a realist movie — but for the time being he’s beholden to the tobacco lord (a very funny Robert Duvall) who’s got him scurrying to reinstate cigarette-smoking in movies; the Hollywood über-agent (Rob Lowe) who needs no introduction because he’s a freak for all things Asian; and his intensely competitive barfly comrades, the alcohol-industry lobbyist (Maria Bello) and shill for the firearms business (Saturday Night Live alumnus David Koechner). Significantly, it’s only his pub mates who can speak frankly, and then only among themselves.
Thank You For Smoking was adapted by Reitman from a 1994 novel by the matchless New Yorker satirist Christopher Buckley, but the movie could only have been made by a media business insider. The son of director Ivan Reitman, Jason knows his Hollywood (the Ovitz clone, clad in a kimono and whispering his connections into his cell phone, is inspired, though one can imagine a more simian double — Mike Myers? — than the impossibly fresh-faced Lowe) and got his training making television commercials — a world in which the divorce of words from meaning, let alone truth, has reached its apotheosis. But if Thank You For Smoking shows a slick mastery of slimy milieu and the political culture of spin, it also suggests, through Eckhart’s wonderfully sly performance, a distinctively contemporary corporate temperament, built, as Nick proudly tells his own son, on infinite “moral flexibility.” The world has always had its spinmeisters, but Nick, with his facile smile and raffish charm — he’s at once urbane and wolfish — and his ability to twist language and manipulate media to any end, represents a new breed of powermongers as frightening as they are ridiculous. For all his talk of meeting his mortgage payments, ?Nick’s motivation is not primarily financial, or loyalty to his masters, but the sheer enjoyment of playing the game to win no matter whose side he’s on. If the prototype for Nick is the late Lee Atwater, widely credited as the pioneer of spin when he claimed to have turned Ronald Reagan’s disastrous performance in his 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale into a public-relations victory, the model for Macy’s senator is Michael Pertschuk, the sanctimonious former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission who, after being forced out of his job, took a position with the anti-smoking lobby. In Thank You For Smoking, as in the Beltway, which camp you’re in matters less than the strategic alliances you build. When Nick, as he must, is hoist on his own petard, it’s by people just like him, and using the very tricks he’d use himself.
A universe as morally relativistic as this begs for the blazing guns of satire, and for a while Reitman seems to be going gleefully all the way. Nick is even shaping his son (the moon-faced Cameron Bright) in his own image until, in a failure of nerve that all but derails the movie, the impulse to make nice with the audience rears its sentimental head. Perhaps the equivocal finale is apt — after all, even Atwater, a shark among sharks, showed remorse on his premature deathbed. But I wonder whether Buckley meant for us to see Nick warmed up as a lovable rogue. Yet perhaps this, too, is apt. Certainly, it represents a quintessentially American ambivalence toward those who finesse our public life. For every outraged ordinary Joe who wants to see Jack Abramoff burned at the stake, there’s another who wants to chuck him under the chin because, for the longest time, he got away with it.
THANK YOU FOR SMOKING | Written and directed by JASON REITMAN, adapted from the novel by CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY | Produced by DAVID O. SACKS | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures | At ArcLight