Ever since I was a child I did not do well around cigarette smoke. My mother is a smoker, as are the majority of her siblings and many of my cousins. This made family gatherings hard for me. Car rides were particularly unbearable. Whenever I get around puffers, my throat closes up and I cannot breathe. It has never been diagnosed as an allergic reaction, but the more I understand about such things the more I believe it could be. It is funny, and often unfortunate, how people treat the things we do not like. History is replete with the devastating consequences of such actions, from wars to racism and everything in between. In this country, the application of public opinion to how we treat certain aspects of modern life has been uneven. For example, we seem to find pornography to be more and more acceptable, and yet smokers are increasingly pushed to the margins of society, in our attitudes towards them and where they must go to light up. Of course, the health risks of smoking are well documented, but there are also many studies that detail the psychological damage caused by viewing pornography. Both can be addictions, yet the latter are treated almost with a tenderness, whereas the former are seemingly pariahs, unless they quit. This partially explains the content in Thank You for Smoking (2005).
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a vice-president and spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, a pseudo-scientific think-tank funded by tobacco companies to combat the increasingly negative image in which their products are cast. You get a sense of his job early on when he appears on Joan Lunden’s talk show as the loan representative of cigarette manufacturers who are being blamed for a fifteen year old boy getting lung cancer. Sympathy is clearly on the side of the cancer victim, and despite a certain eloquence, Naylor’s well-rehearsed obfuscations are not enough to win many. When he returns to the Academy, his boss is worried that perhaps the battle is being lost. He is sent to see the Captain (Robert Duvall), the Academy’s founder and owner of one of the big tobacco companies in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Together they come up with a plan to make cigarettes look cool again, and they turn to the tried and true arbiter of fads: Hollywood. Thus Naylor’s next trip is to Hollywood where he meets with big time agent Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe) to try to convince the executive to get his actors to be smokers in their movies. Naylor’s actions earn the attention of Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes), a reporter with the fictitious newspaper the Washington Probe. She wants to do a story on him, and she is not above going about getting it by resorting to any means necessary to gain his trust. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this means sex. Everything seems to be going swimmingly for Naylor until Holloway’s story comes out. It details a series of underhanded tactics used by the Academy, one of which includes basically bribing Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), the original Marlboro Man in this world. The story is even critical of Naylor bringing his son, Joey (Cameron Bright), on various trips. When the article is printed, the blame is laid completely on Naylor and he is fired. He is faced with having been a part of a corrupt system, and he is despondent until he gets a pep talk from his son. This convinces him to testify at a Congressional hearing called by Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) of Vermont, who wants to put a poison label on cigarette packages. Even though Naylor no longer has a vested interest in the matter, he is still seen as the face of big tobacco. His defense is an interesting one. He points out some of the health risks of eating too much Vermont cheddar, for example, but mainly he underscores the unnecessary nature of such a warning for a product whose dangers are so well documented. He wins over the room and the measure is defeated. His success brings his former boss at the Academy, BR (J. K. Simmons), to offer him his old job once more, but he refuses. Instead, Naylor decides to strike out on his own and help other companies with image problems.
One of the repeated questions of Naylor in Thank You for Smoking is how can he do what he does. Aside from the fact that he represents a product blamed with killing thousands of people each year, he seems like a decent enough fellow. He loves his son, and seems to want to be a good father, even appearing uncomfortable in including the boy in some of his activities. Naylor’s consistent response to this question is that everyone has a mortgage to pay. In going into more detail about this with his son, Naylor explains further that everyone deserves a defense, even multi-national companies. This comes while Naylor is giving Joey advice on his homework, telling the young man that the best thing about the United States is its endless system of appeals. While awkward, it does still speak to the Christian ideal of redemption. Obviously there is evidence that tobacco corporations have tried to hide the negative aspects of their products. Yet our reaction, like that of Senator Finistirre, is essentially to demonize these people for better or worse. Doing so cuts off people. But everyone deserves a chance to win back their reputation. Paul, the writer of so many of the epistles in the Bible, persecuted Christians, sending some to their death. Peter denied Jesus three times. You could go on, and yet these are the people who began a Faith that now spans the globe spreading a message of peace, particularly during this Christmas season. Not giving such opportunities for redemption tends to cause discord.
Thank You for Smoking is an interesting movie, though one definitely aimed at adults. While there are some sex scenes, there is no nudity. What makes it slightly uncomfortable to watch is the way it celebrates certain things, like smoking. Maybe “celebrates” is the wrong word, though I do not know what else to call it. It does not make smoking glamorous, but neither does the film condemn it. What it does tell us is that taking up these habits is ultimately a personal choice. Anything outside of viewing it in this manner is between you and God, though that is my own addition to the film’s logic. At any rate, we are responsible for our own actions, something that is part of what it means to be a believer.