Reviewing the old school: Thank You for Smoking (2005)

Do you remember this film? I didn’t remember this film until quite recently, and I can’t for the life of me think of why. Thinking back to when Thank You for Smoking was released all the way back in 2005, it was a pretty big deal. Not like in a blockbuster, Transformers or The Dark Knight kind of way, but, I mean, I was in fucking high school and I was hearing about what a brilliant film it was. That’s not normal, is it? I don’t think that’s normal. This film though, this film was special. This smart little indie film all about arguments and talking, without any explosions and only a little sex, had us teenage Aussie millennials talking or at least my circle of friends, and for good reason. Because my friends are weird. And it’s a great film. So why’s it so forgettable?

The film, fantastically written and directed by Jason Reitman, stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, the chief spokesman for what is essentially big tobacco. Nick is suave, charming, good at what he does and loves his job. Since his job is convincing as many people as possible to smoke cigarettes, in most other films he’d probably be the bad guy. And he sort of is. But he’s so rationally proud of it that you can’t help but cheer for him and his cohorts to win over that bastard senator from Vermont who’s only thinking of the children. The film follows Nick at his highest (getting the film industry involved in making cigarettes cool – cooler – again) and lowest (an article is released revealing all the secrets he’d told to the writer, who he’d been sleeping with… also kidnapping and attempted murder) points while clearly explaining how political argument and debate work, the art of lobbying and the importance of making informed decisions.

The acting is fantastic. Aaron Eckhart owns the role of Nick Naylor, and you never for a moment doubt his sincerity or self-awareness. Katie Holmes as the above mentioned reporter who really shouldn’t be trusted with sensitive information plays her role with a casual, professional glee. JK Simmons and William H Macy carry their roles with skill, as always, as Nick’s boss and sorta nemesis respectively and deliver some of the best lines in the movie, as do Maria Bello and David Koechner as Nick’s best friends Polly Bailey and Bobby Jay Bliss (alcohol and gun lobbies respectively). Smaller roles are perfectly cast, like Robert Duvall as The Captain and Rob Lowe as Hollywood fixer Jeff Megall. Even Cameron Bright, the (at the time) child actor playing Nick’s son Joey does a great job (though there was one or two moments that felt a little flat). Jason Reitman did a fantastic job with this. The dialogue is well written and the editing switches from long, drawn out moments to rabid flashes expertly. The music is excellent, and I loved the song playing over the opening credits.

What’s great about this film is the moral ambiguity of its theme: mainly, to make your own informed choices and come to your own conclusions. Nick Naylor may be working for the ostensible bad guys, a big corporation that cares more about profits than human lives, but he does so with surprising moral conviction and (I think mostly because of his frank narration) far more honesty than what we’d normally expect. He definitely seems more honest than the manipulative Senator Finistirre. But what I love about this film, what I really love about this excellent piece of satire, is that it is incredibly self-aware. The information it is providing is nothing new, and it knows that it’s nothing new. Admits to it cheerfully and wittily. At the end, at the climax of the movie when Nick sits in at a hearing about putting a skull and crossbones on all cigarette packs he acknowledges that he knows cigarettes are bad for you. In fact everybody knows cigarettes are bad for you. Similarly, the audience already knows about what the film is apparently revealing. We know that big corporate powers use films and celebrities to sell their products. We know that they use misleading scientific studies to continue lying to the consumer. We know that they have huge teams of lawyers to tie down opponents in legal red tape. We know that they lie, cheat and bribe. And the film knows we know. Thank You for Smoking is not about revealing the dangers of the world. It treats us more intelligently than that. The film is about the power of argument and persuasion, and whether you’re right or wrong depends on how convincing you are. Nick Naylor is the hero of this film because he is the best at arguing. That’s all. Mind you I’m a fan of arguing (love a good fight), so maybe I’m just reaching my own conclusions (see what I did there?)

So, you remembering this film now? Maybe saying I’d forgotten this film is going a bit too far. I don’t know what made me think of it the other day, but I remembered it immediately, and enough where I was able to start thinking about what I was gonna write down before the rewatch. But it still feels like it should be far better remembered than what it is, up there with other political satires like Wag the Dog or… shit… I can’t think of any similar enough examples at this exact moment. Point is, if you haven’t you should watch this film. If you have, watch it again. It’s an easy film to over-analyse and under-analyse, and it’s a great piece of smart cinema regardless. Funny too.

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