THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (2005)


written and directed by Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Christopher Buckley

Rumour has it that certain British wags have taken to driving around the US with "Honk if you can distinguish parody from satire" bumper stickers. Rightly or wrongly, some denizens of the old Empire have got it into their heads that the colonies just can't do satire, and crud like Thank You for Smoking is only going to back up that impression. This would-be satirical story of tobacco industry spin doctor Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhardt), who lies for Big Tobacco while trying to be a role model for his son, takes some broad shots at politicians, Hollywood, lobbyists, news media, and industry; but topical ridicule is not the same thing as satire. It's just one possible ingredient in the recipe for satire, and this movie is lacking in everything else. Satire it simply ain't.

Satire takes sides. Satire does not try to be all things to all men. The satirist is not an equal-opportunities purveyor of ridicule; he has a clear-eyed focus on a particular target, and he attacks it relentlessly and unambiguously. Thank You for Smoking is too concerned with marketing demographics to do anything of the sort. It's careful not to alienate any potential viewer, so it tries to spread the weight of its attacks across the political board, to balance the shots at liberals and conservatives, the tobacco industry and its opponents. The result is that every attack seems tame and muddled, and the film seems completely disoriented.

If Smoking ultimately comes down on any side (and it takes a while), it's the side of libertarianism: yeah, smoking is bad, but big government shouldn't interfere with our consumer freedoms, or insult our intelligence. A liberal Vermont senator in the film tries to introduce dire warning labels on cigarette packets, but at a senate hearing, Naylor counters that the labels should then also be put on packets of high-cholestrol Vermont cheese, leaving the senator speechless and our hero victorious. (Perhaps the senator might have pointed out that cheese doesn't diffuse into the stomachs of every non-cheese-eater in the vicinity.) Libertarianism is a poor foundation for satire; libertarianism is conservatism by another name, and satire, like reality, has a well-known left-wing bias.

This is because satire wants to change the world. Satire has a reforming zeal. The satirist is a firebrand speaker, who rages against injustice, who points out the wrong so that it may be put right. Satire is animated by self-righteousness, but Smoking is animated by self-satisfaction. The filmmakers are simply too pleased with themselves and the world to want to change anything in it; their work is saturated with smugness and complacency. It's not unreasonable to suspect that Reitman, son of the director of Ghostbusters and given the reins of a multimillion dollar production at age 27, owes his position at least partly to nepotism. How could a genuinely satirical voice come out of such a milieu? Reitman and company are so much in awe of Naylor's spin and wealth, and the wealth of the circles he moves in, that they can't attack him or what he stands for with any conviction. Indeed, the film quickly falls in love with its protagonist and starts treating his personal problems without irony -- which is a fatal mistake.

Satire has a heart of steel; satire is uncomfortable; satire hurts. Smoking has a heart of gooey marshmallow; it tries to soothe, to reassure its suburban audience that their lives have not been in vain. At its core, it is the sappy story of how a young professional gains a new-found self-respect and the love of his devoted son. Like a good Christian, Naylor realises that using his God-given talent -- bullshitting -- is obviously the highest purpose in life, and launches back into a career of spin with renewed vigour and a clear conscience. When the characters in Dr. Strangelove (which is true American satire) learn to love the bomb, it's a bitter and hilarious comment on Cold War poltics. When Nick Naylor learns to love himself, it's a ringing endorsement of feelgood values, and a straight-up happy ending. (It's also worth contrasting the work of Alexander Payne, another true satirist. The woes of the protagonist of About Schmidt are treated sympathetically, but also with irony. It's clear that they are mostly the result of his wasted life and the society he supported.)

Thank You for Smoking is not satire. It's also not a good film. Granted, the title sequence is amusing and creative, but after that it's rapidly downhill. The film has no momentum, very little structure: stuff just happens randomly for ninety minutes. The script is juvenile and lazy, full of cartoonish boardroom scenes and straw-man arguments. Naylor is supposed to be a sublimely smooth talker, but the writers can only portray this by turning everyone around him into an inarticulate idiot. The movie looks stale and unimaginative. Reitman makes heavy use of captions, freeze-frames, and other tired cinematic devices from the late 90s; devices used with much more energy and invention by Payne in Election in 1998, but which are now the staple diet of every hip and self-aware TV series.

A low point is the montage of Naylor's trip to Hollywood with his adoring kid, which of course is in slo-mo and processed to look like a faded 8mm home movie. It's meant to be a timeless golden memory, don't you see? The repeated father/son love-ins are a consistently nauseating feature of the movie. Eckhardt is bad enough as Naylor, an uncharismatic jawbone on the screen, but the kid who worships him is even worse. This precocious tyke, who looks like a squashed Wil Wheaton, clearly wasted the best years of his childhood learning his impromptu speeches. I desperately wanted the movie to poke fun at their relationship, as it was poking fun at everything else, but it seems that one thing you can never sneer at is family values. The family is sacrosanct.

Another thing the film holds sacrosanct is the United States. Sure, it contains some gentle jibes against the US: when his son asks him for help on a school essay titled "Why America has the Best Government in the World", Naylor quips "it's because of our endless appeals system" and "because we put more people in prison". But such jibes are just blushing self-deprecation: there's really nothing in the movie that would lead one to suspect that America has anything other than the best government in the world. The movie climaxes with the defeat of the senator's un-American legislation, and Naylor's son's triumphant reading of his essay. It ends up essentially a celebration of American government, American consumer freedoms, the American work ethic, American apple pie.

This is all part of the movie's attempt at across-the-board appeal. I get the impression that "we're number one!" is the background assumption across almost the whole spectrum of American political life; I see little on even the most liberal American blogs to make me think otherwise. The "radical" liberal blogger will often betray his chauvanism with a casual, ignorant, xenophobic remark; you can easily find such remarks on any pro-Democrat blog. In reality, most of the bloggers who jeer at Bush just want a return to the Clinton era of national greatness, when they didn't have to suffer the embarrassment of the current cretin in the White House, when America didn't have to throw its military weight around to prove it was number one. For them, America is still number one, and George W. is just a case of bad PR. All they need to do is replace him with someone literate, restore a few freedoms here and there, and supremacy of the United States will be once again evident to its people and the world.

It doesn't seem unrealistic that Naylor's son was given "Why America has the Best Government in the World" as a school essay: I get the impression that this very notion is driven into most Americans from their schooldays. One of my friends, who moved from Boston to Ireland as a child, had somehow arrived with the notion that the USA was the world's only democracy, and was quite surprised to discover that there were democratic elections in Ireland too (and what's more, a more democratic electoral system). Most people aren't lucky enough to have their eyes opened. I once met a friendly old guy on Amtrak, who spontaneously told me that "America is the best country in the world. I wouldn't live anywhere else," even though he freely admitted he had never been anywhere else, and didn't know much about anywhere else.

It's dangerous that "we have the best government in the world" is such a widespread background assumption, not necessarily because it is false (although I believe it is), but because it is held for the most part unquestioningly, and from a position of ignorance. And history has shown that few things are as dangerous as the unquestioned belief. Until the American Dreamers start to think it possible they are mistaken (to paraphrase a great puritan), they'll be easily manipulated whenever America throws its imperial weight around, they'll be unaware of the real problems in their society. And they'll make and lap up bad art, like Thank You for Smoking.


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