I don’t know what I was expecting – perhaps a Michael Moore-style shock-doc on the US tobacco industry with a few stars thrown in, or the kind of treatment recently meted out in Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price – a film that systematically dismantles the myth of Wal-Mart’s family values and accuses the company of stripping the life out of small-town America. So, given that Wal-Mart, to my knowledge, doesn’t actually kill its customers, when it came to the tobacco industry, I was expecting a blood-bath.
What I didn’t expect was an – albeit tongue-in-cheek – homage to the sheer breathtaking audacity and intellectual callisthenics of the spin doctor. According to the press release, Thank You for Smoking is a ‘fiercely satirical look at today’s culture of spin’.
The central character, or should I say ‘hero’, is Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), chief spokesman for Big Tobacco, who makes his living defending the rights of smokers, cigarette manufacturers and tobacco farmers against a phalanx of health zealots. His nemesis is an opportunistic Vermont senator (William H Macy), who is campaigning to label cigarette packets as poisonous. Naylor goes on the offensive, effectively hijacking the agenda on TV talk-shows, and enlists the help of a Hollywood super-agent (Rob Lowe) to get fags back on the silver screen.
The result is an entertaining, if bizarre, take on corporate lobbying that leaves you wondering what exactly the film is trying to do. If anything, it is the political players, the media and pressure groups that receive the least sympathetic treatment: the senator laments that a cancer patient in his TV campaign doesn’t look sick enough; an influential reporter sleeps with Naylor in order to write an exposé, and pressure groups receive short shrift in the script.
By comparison, the character of Naylor, while completely amoral, is more rounded, ferociously intelligent and increasingly thoughtful. An arch-manipulator, he feels no need to apologise for defending the indefensible. Director Reitman apparently met congressmen, Capitol Hill staffers and lobbyists before fleshing out characters such as Naylor and his fellow lobbyists. I suspect he must have been impressed by what he found.
The film has all the ingredients to be a searing indictment of corporate lobbying, but I suspect it will prove more of a recruitment tool for the PR industry.