With his chiseled jaw and his confident swagger, Nick Naylor is the latest in a long line of cinematic antiheroes—the sort of guy you love to hate. As a smooth-talking lobbyist for the tobacco industry, he spins lies into truth and truth into lies, earning a living from the deaths of millions of cigarette smokers. He is a morally corrupt corporate shill who justifies what he does by his need to pay his mortgage, a rationalization that by his own admission is the "yuppie Nuremberg defense." But there is something so charming about Nick that it is easy to absolve him of his sins—which, of course, is what makes him a great antihero.
Based on Christopher Buckley's bestselling novel from the early 1990s, the new film Thank You for Smoking stars Aaron Eckhart as Naylor, the "sultan of spin"—a master of manipulating the truth with a self-conferred "bachelor's in kicking ass and taking names." Nick's job as the vice president of the Academy of Tobacco Studies is to debunk the claims that cigarettes are bad and promote smoking. He spends much of his time with his only friends, lobbyists for the alcohol and gun industry (Maria Bello and David Koechner), who call themselves the MOD Squad—Merchants of Death. Their social time is spent arguing who has a higher death count, or who is more likely to be killed for their work. But for Nick, it's not his de facto involvement in cigarette-smoking-related deaths that brings him pleasure. "Michael Jordan plays basketball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent," he says in describing his life's passion. Whether it is offering hush money to the Marlboro Man (Sam Elliott), now bitter and dying of lung cancer; conspiring with a film executive (Rob Lowe) to get Hollywood to help glamorize smoking; or arguing with his son's classmates about the dangers of smoking during career day, there is nothing Nick loves more than convincing people he is right. "That's the beauty of arguments," he tells his son, "if you argue correctly, you're never wrong."
Adapted for the screen and directed by Jason Reitman in his feature debut, Thank You for Smoking is a dark, comedic companion to such recent films as Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana, both of which recall the politically charged films of the 1970s. Reitman, whose father, Ivan, directed such classics as Ghostbusters and Meatballs, is clearly a student of cinema, taking as much from his father as from directors like Sidney Lumet, whose films such as Dog Day Afternoon and Network echo in Thank You for Smoking's morally ambiguous mix of politics and humor.
"I am fortunate enough to have a father who is a filmmaker and opened me up to smart films when I was younger," Reitman told WW during a recent phone interview. "I saw Network, obviously, and I'm sure subversive movies like that, that not only were subversive in their politics but innovative in their filmmaking, had an effect on me. But when I finally sat down to do Thank You for Smoking, it was just kind of a natural reaction. It's only since the movie has been finished that I can say, 'OK, I see where I was influenced there.'"
Although Buckley's book was published more than 10 years ago, during the height of politically correct doublespeak, the film itself, surprisingly, retains much of the dark, edgy humor. If anything, the corporate greed, malfeasance and manufactured versions of the truth that the MOD Squad spin are even more timely today, when one half expects soon to hear of a White House press release claiming it's not the war causing deaths in Iraq, but rather lead poisoning caused by bullets that are somehow being introduced into the human bloodstream.
Fans of the book may take issue with changes that have occurred in Thank You's translation to film, which takes some of the razor-sharp edge out of the original material. Reitman's film has bite, but Buckley's book devoured flesh. The relationship between Nick and his son, Joey (Cameron Bright), is used to make things a bit less caustic, making Nick more palatable than the greedy executives of films like Oliver Stone's Wall Street. And even Reitman concedes, "The book is better," but that doesn't stop the film from working as one of the most entertaining, well-crafted movies so far this year. "The novel is kind of whimsical and extremely charming, and it's disarming—it's what allows the humor around making light of lung cancer work," says Reitman. "If you're going to make a movie that's about cigarettes, it's got to have a lot of charm. I wanted the filmmaking to have a similar amount of whimsy so that the audiences go through an enjoyable experience."
Brimming with subtle visual gags and absurd humor, Thank You for Smoking is a brilliant comedy that is ruthless in its attacks on both hand-wringing liberals and money-grubbing conservatives. Some audiences may be put off by the fact that Nick never seeks redemption for his misdeeds—something that probably would have happened had Mel Gibson made this film as planned. But the fact that Thank You never apologizes for the punches it throws is what makes it so great. Like Nick Naylor, the film knows how to argue, and much of its fun is in going through the spin cycle and emerging unclean.