Nick Naylor is the sort of character for whom the phrase “the charm of the devil” was invented. He’s witty, intelligent, engaging — and a completely unapologetic apologist for the tobacco industry, an industry that he openly acknowledges, to certain people anyway, is responsible for the deaths of thousands, if not millions, of people.
The thing is, he also believes those people are even more responsible for their deaths, because they actively chose to smoke cigars and cigarettes even though it has been common knowledge for decades that tobacco causes lung cancer. And so Nick campaigns against anti-tobacco activists, not only to defend his employers, but to save the public from those meddling, do-gooder government types who try to save people from themselves.
If that last sentence makes you a bit dizzy, wait until you see Thank You for Smoking — the scathing new satire from novice director Jason Reitman, based on the Christopher Buckley novel — and the competing forces set in motion by the various spin doctors therein.
Nick is especially good at turning no-win situations into outright victories, whether meeting a cancer-stricken boy on a TV talk show or privately offering hush money to a Marlboro Man who has taken up the anti-tobacco crusade since becoming sick himself.
Nick wins partly through sheer brazenness; he tells the talk show it is in the industry’s interests to keep juvenile smokers alive, and he catches the anti-tobacco lobbyists off-guard by accusing them of wanting the boy to die, because it would help their cause.
He also wins by playing on the hypocrisy of his opponents; so, like Eve pointing her finger at the serpent, the Marlboro Man might want to argue that Nick seduced him into giving up his newfound principles — but ultimately, he is responsible for his own choices.
And sometimes Nick wins simply by being disingenuous. His immediate employer, the Academy of Tobacco Studies, claims to have found no proven scientific link between tobacco smoke and lung cancer. So when Nick speaks to his son’s class, and one girl says her mommy told her cigarettes are bad, Nick has a ready, belittling reply: “Is your mother a doctor?” (The way Nick encourages kids to doubt what the grown-ups tell them is uncannily similar to the tactics some young-Earth creationists use when speaking to children.)
The characters in Thank You for Smoking may have cigarettes on the brain, but the movie’s real themes are much broader than that. On one level, the film is about the relationship between freedom and responsibility; should people blame and sue corporations for selling them harmful products, when it was the people who chose to purchase them?
On another level, it is about the way persuasive arguments tend to rely on form more than content; as Nick tells his son Joey, “The beauty of argument is, if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”
And on yet another, it is about the nature of authority. What sort of control should parents exert over the choices of their children, and by extension, what sort of control, if any, should government have over its citizens?
Reitman, who told the Globe and Mail his film is ultimately about “good parenting, which is training young people to think for themselves,” explores this theme by fleshing out the relationship between Nick and Joey, who wavers between pride and embarrassment in his old man.
Although sharply written, the satire is, if anything, a little more restrained than it needs to be, and a couple of plot elements are considerably underdeveloped, especially where an investigative reporter and an attempt on Nick’s life are concerned. But the film is blessed with several fine supporting actors, who play their parts to perfection.
Almost every character is sleazy or repugnant in some way, and yet almost every character gives voice to a piece of the truth. It is left to us to put those pieces together, and to consider the way we sometimes mix truth and guile when we play spin doctor ourselves.
— Versions of this review were originally published in BC Christian News and ChristianWeek.