Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Thank You for Smoking (2005)

The Movie: Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart from the Dark Knight) is probably one of the most hated men alive. He is the spokesman and public face for the Academy of Tobacco Studies; a Big Tobacco funded “research center” that studies the link between smoking and lung cancer (fifteen years and nothing definitive yet). Naylor’s job is to fight for the rights of the tobacco industry, defending it from the attacks and slanders of the various political lobbies and action groups that have it under siege.

Naylor does have a few aces in his corner. First of all he is a very naturally talented speaker, the kind of smooth talker who makes the Satan of folklore look like an amateur. He also has two good friends in the form of Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), the head lobbyist for the alcohol industry; and Bobby Jay Bliss (David Koechner), spokesman for the firearms lobby. Together the M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) Squad, as they call themselves, meets weekly for lunch to discuss strategies.

However, Naylor also has some major challenges. Probably the most direct of them is B.R. (J.K. Simmons of the recent Spiderman trilogy), his backstabbing boss. Then there is his desire to reconnect with his son, Joey (Cameron Bright of the Butterfly Effect and the Twilight movies), despite the efforts of his estranged ex-wife (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend (Daniel Travis). Finally, Naylor’s arch nemesis, Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), has launched a new campaign to mark all cigarette packets with the skull and crossbones poison symbol.

But it’s about to get worse. A kidnapping by extremists, and an unwise affair with an ambitious reporter (Katie “Mrs. Tom Cruise” Holmes of Dawson’s Creek fame), threatens to derail Naylor’s life completely…

The Review:

Michael Jordan plays ball, Charles Manson kills people, I talk. Everyone has a talent."

Satire is a strange beast, to put it mildly. In its strictest definition, satire is a literary (although it can be graphic as well) form of social criticism that takes the issue or individual being criticized and depicts it at its most absurd extreme. However, like all art forms, good satire is hard to pull off. It’s one thing to just make fun of a current event or celebrity and call it “satire,” it’s another entirely to do it in a way that truly says something relevant about the event or individual so depicted. Added to that is the fact that much of what is classified under “satire” can be dated really quickly; when the depicted item is no longer relevant to the public. However, what I, personally, find most interesting about the art form is that with the very best satire, the line between fact and exaggeration can be very blurry indeed.

Thank You for Smoking is a satirical look at the U.S. lobbying system that renders almost invisible the line between absurd exaggeration and what you can actually expect to see in the news headlines. Seriously, I have really seen, with my own eyes, some of the most absurd and ridiculous plot elements of this movie reported by the news. For one, the pictorial warnings on cigarette packages; as you may or may not know there was recently a nearly successful campaign to do exactly that; except that unlike the poison symbol of the movie, this one was to show graphic depictions of tobacco’s long term effects. Then there’s the character of Bobby Jay Bliss, who portrays perfectly every so-called Second Amendment Rights advocate I have encountered or heard from. In one scene that brilliantly sums up the one of the driving mindsets behind the movement; just after Nick has recovered from his kidnapping, Bobby hands him a pistol to defend himself with the next time. Joey, who is present, says “cool!”; and Bobby responds with an expression that mirrors Joey’s own and the comment “yeah, huh?” However, when Polly (also present), jabs him and gives him a dirty look, Bobby immediately looks serious and says “I mean, guns should be treated with respect, you understand?”

The big thing about Thank You for Smoking is that it’s not really about smoking at all, but the lobbying system itself. In fact, you could probably change it to just about any other hot button issue and not have to make too many real changes to the core plot. The depiction of the world Naylor lives and operates in is both hilariously ridiculous, and entirely too convincing. This is a world where all that matters is the victory of the cause you champion, no matter what the cost of said victory. Actual facts don’t matter here, they are manufactured to suit whatever message you are trying to convey. As Nick comments about the man who heads the “research” for the Institute of Tobacco Studies: “the man’s a genius, he could disprove gravity.”

Nick Naylor, himself, is a particularly fascinating and engaging character; due both to the script and to Eckhart’s talents as an actor. Naylor is the type of character who, in just about any other movie, would be the villain; or at the very least a sleazy used car salesman type of individual. However, first of all this movie is entirely from his point of view. Secondly, he has enough positive human traits that not only is he identifiable and sympathetic; but I actually find myself cheering on the bastard.

Part of this is simply by way of comparison to the other characters. In the world Nick Naylor inhabits, everybody has an ulterior motive or an ax to grind. Even Senator Finistirre, who should be heroic, is far more concerned about his image and political ambitions than he is about the righteousness of his cause; and as a result is more than willing to take his cause to absurd and extreme ends.

However, a very large part of the regard we wind up feeling for Nick Naylor is entirely due to the man, himself. For one, it’s made very clear and explicit, without the movie clubbing us over the head with the fact, that he and his son truly love and care for each other. For another, Nick acts out of a sense of duty and honor that, Quixotic though it is, one cannot help but admire nonetheless. I, personally, do not agree with Naylor’s cause (I feel that the “helpless” corporations he champions have a dire need to be knocked over, beaten and kicked, repeatedly); but the fact that he’s willing to put so much on the line to do what he feels is right resonates nonetheless.

Finally, in what is probably the most perverse twist in an already perversely twisted movie; Nick Naylor, openly acknowledged and lauded as the patron god of conmen in a world that consists almost entirely of conmen and shysters, actually comes out as honest and sincere. You heard that right. The thing that really gets me about this character, the crowning spark of this movie’s brilliance, is that the character who occupies the role of the guy used car salesmen aspire to be is, more often than not, telling the truth. I don’t agree with Naylor’s cause; but every time I watch this movie I’m shocked by the fact that I often find his observations right on the money.

For example, I don’t think it’s right to target cigarettes at children. However, when Naylor addresses his son’s class about his job at the beginning of the movie; the basic message he conveys to them, that they should think for themselves and not let other people make choices for them, is one I wholeheartedly endorse. Or when he first meets with Heather Holloway, the reporter, and admits that he mainly does what he does “for the mortgage;” and then ironically tells himself that this is the “yuppie Nuremberg defense.” In other words, he knows it’s morally suspect at times, but it’s what he has to do to keep his job. As the movie goes on, “for the mortgage” becomes the code phrase for doing unpleasant, degrading, morally shady things; not because you want to, but because you have to in order to make a living and get by in this world. That’s something nearly all of us can identify with on some level.

That leads us to the final element I love about this movie, the dialogue. As I’ve mentioned before in other blog entries, I have always loved language and words; and I particularly love good exchanges of dialogue. Thank You for Smoking has some of the very best lines and dialogue I have ever had the pleasure of coming across. In fact, there is so much good dialogue here that I had a particularly difficult time trying to pick out a good quote for this entry. I won’t repeat them here, but for my two very favorite parts keep an eye out for the exchange where Naylor explains to his son how he can always be right, and the scene where he and a Hollywood producer are coming up with an idea to successfully product place cigarettes in a major movie.

So in conclusion, Thank You for Smoking wonderfully presents the three movie elements I love the most: it provides a convincing and believable world, it portrays some truly wonderful characters, and it features some of the best movie dialogue you can find. It is a brilliant satire that, all too accurately in some cases, depicts for us the most ridiculous aspects of our government and society.

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