Choose Your Poison

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by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith / June 2006 issue Socialist Action

“Thank You for Smoking.” Written and directed by Jason Reitman, from a novel by Christopher Buckley. Starring Aaron Eckhart, William H. Macy, Robert Duvall, and Katie Holmes.

These days, it’s all about spin, the technique used by spinmeisters, from the government to the guy or gal in infomercials, to get people to do things they don’t want to do and to buy stuff they don’t need.

In Jason Reitman’s satirical film, “Thank You for Smoking,” Nick Naylor (played by blond, lantern-jawed, All-American-looking Aaron Eckhart) spins for Big Tobacco. He is divorced, with an adolescent son, Joey (Cameron Bright), who is sometimes embarrassed by his dad, but nevertheless idolizes him and schemes to go everywhere with him.

The thing that Big Tobacco has going for it, so you might think its product hardly needs spinning, is that nicotine is addictive. Many court cases have been won against tobacco companies by cancer- ridden ex-smokers or families of those who have died from lung cancer directly related to smoking cigarettes.

Still, employees of the industry spin because they need constantly to hook more customers to replace those who’ve either quit or died. They especially target children (i.e., until recently, the cartoon character Joe Camel) and Third World populations.

In an early scene, Nick sits in a booth at a local pub with Polly and Bobby Jay. Polly (Maria Bello) belongs to a committee touting alcohol and Bobby (David Koechner) is a big-time firearms proponent. The three friends have nicknamed themselves “The MOD Squad: Merchants of Death.”

They drink wine and smoke while bad-mouthing bleeding-heart liberals and one-upping each other on how many deaths per day can be attributed to their respective products. Who wins hands down? Tobacco, of course, with 1200. On talk shows, however, defending tobacco against the charge that it kills, Nick says, “If people die, we lose customers.”

He presents an idea to his corporate bosses about putting smoking back into the movies as product-placement (although today, by the look of it, smoking has never left films) as it was in the 1940s through the Sixties, e.g., Bogie and Cary Grant, or Bette Davis (“A chimney!” extols Naylor).

Nick has become such a force that he attracts the attention of the owner of the company: Doak “The Captain” Boykin (Robert Duvall in full Southern Gent mode), who sends Naylor to Hollywood to pitch the idea. Later, he orders him to bribe, with a suitcase full of cash, a haggard, gray-haired, dying, ex-Marlboro Man, Lorne Lutch (wonderfully acted by Sam Elliot), into dropping any suits against the company. Lutch lives in little more than a shack in the boonies with his gun-toting daughter for protection.

A Vermont senator, perfectly named Ortolan K. Finistirre (William H. Macy), wants to pass a bill to put a skull and crossbones logo on each pack of ciggies. He and Naylor lock horns at a Senate hearing over tobacco and Vermont cheese. Finistirre is so intent on getting his way that he puts a hit on Naylor in a hilarious scene involving multiple nicotine patches. Here, Macy reveals a passion not seen since “Fargo.”

Later, Naylor deftly substitutes one cause for another, becoming an apologist for cellular phones (which are under investigation for links to cancer).

Throughout the film, his son, Joey, stands by him, looks up to him and serves as Naylor’s moral compass. Still, morals don’t compromise the irreverent barbs thrown throughout the film, on both sides of the question, which make “Smoking” such a smart, joyous ride.

In the end, Nick Naylor puts the lie to the rationalization, “I do it for the mortgage.” It’s all about freedom of choice.

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