If the Devil were real, he wouldn’t be terrifying. He’d be handsome, charming, well-dressed and eloquent – the kid of guy you’d like to have dinner with. And over dessert, he’d ask you why you’re convinced chocolate ice cream is the absolute best ice cream in the world. Then he’d prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are wrong, vanilla is actually the best. Once you’re confused, he’s got you.
Nick Naylor, played by Aaron Eckhart in the delicious new film Thank You For Smoking , is a lobbyist for big tobacco. He is, in fact, sometimes known as the yuppie Mesistophales. That conversation about ice cream? He actually has it with his ten-year-old son. Nick is only illustrating the principle that guides his life: if you argue correctly, you are never wrong.
When we meet Nick, he is a guest on a talk show. He wins over a hostile audience by demonstrating that another guest, a fifteen-year-old known as "cancer boy," is being used by the Pulmonary Institute; they want him to die, for the negative publicity. Big tobacco wants the boy to live; as Nick says, "It’s in our best interests to keep him alive and smoking."
If you stop long enough to think about that, it shouldn’t be funny. Neither should it have been funny when Michael Moore, on his show TV Nation, got together a group of smokers who had their voice boxes removed. He organized them into a choir, and had them sing "jingle bells," in the office of Phillip Morris, cheerily buzzing away. The genius of good satire is that the laughs come from amazement. Nick certainly sounds like he’s making sense, and that sure does look like a rabbit he’s pulling out of his hat.
The Pulmonary Institute, fronted by the equally cynical Senator Finnister (William H. Macy), is close to pushing through a mandatory skull-and-crossbones label on every pack of cigarettes sold in the United States. This would be disastrous for big tobacco. After his success on the talk show, Nick is now big tobacco’s secret weapon in the war. As he goes about his shady business of pressure, spin control, influence peddling, and bribery, all with a million-dollar smile, his son looks on, worshiping away.
A reporter, Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), is interested in Nick’s story, or maybe just in Nick. She asks: how does he keep his conscience at bay? He has discarded every value but one: personal responsibility. Somebody else’s responsibility, that is. "I’m a mediator between two sides of society that are trying to reach an accommodation," he says, doing what he does because he’s good at it. In this, he reminds me of another recent anti-hero, Yuri Orlov in Lord of War . As the bodies mount, we know their brand of "moral flexibility," as Nick calls it, is heading them for big trouble, even if they don’t. As Douglas Adams pointed out, you may be able to demonstrate that black is white – but it’s liable to get you killed at the next zebra crossing.
A side note: the film opens with the 1947 Tex Williams novelty song teasing tobacco addicts, "Smoke That Cigarette". In 1968, a heavy smoker himself, Williams recorded a new version of the song, extolling the virtues of smoking. Both songs are funny, until you stop to think about them. After many failed attempts to quit smoking, Williams died of lung cancer in 1985.
Thank You for Smoking is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.