Nobody really smokes in Thank You for Smoking, director Jason Reitman’s ambitious satire of spin-doctoring and media manipulation centered on the cigarette industry and its apologists. Robert Duvall, playing an imperious, julep-swilling Old South chief of Big Tobacco, wields a cigar like a scepter while commanding Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), the lobbyist and spokesman anchoring the film, and Naylor himself wields an empty pack at one point. But nobody really lights up and takes a long, satisfying trip to flavor country. It’s only disconcerting in retrospect, like remembering you never actually got to see Gwyneth’s head in the box in Seven.
The actual mechanics of smoking, however, are utterly beside the point to Naylor, the ingenious character dreamed up by novelist Christopher Buckley (son of William F.) 12 years ago as the epitome of the moral vacuum of modern political discourse'and it has only grown more gaping in the interim. As played with jubilant enthusiasm by the floppy-haired, iron-jawed Eckhart, he’s like a high-school debate champion gone horribly wrong'or exquisitely right, depending on your taste for high-school debate.
A former salesman turned into the ultimate apologist for what’s generally considered one of the world’s most amoral industries, Naylor spits many equivocations and arguments that vanish into implausibility the moment you think about them for more than the sound-bite’s length'“Instead of acting like sheep when it comes to cigarettes, maybe you should find out for yourself,” he tells his son’s classmates at Career Day. He spends his liquid lunches chatting with an alcohol-industry spokeswoman (Maria Bello) and a firearms-industry lobbyist (David Koechner), and they trade mortality figures with a detached glee and call themselves the M.O.D. (for Merchants of Death) Squad.
It might sound disgustingly amoral, another postmodern trip to William J. Bennett’s culture without shame, but the 29-year-old Reitman’s script sticks closely to the snappy patter, brisk pace and coolly observant tone established by Buckley’s novel, one of the more underrated beach reads of the last decade. Naylor borrows pages from both conservative and liberal manipulations for his art. He delights in turning every challenge to cigarettes into a referendum on personal freedom, but he also lies, equivocates and counterattacks with vigor. I guess it’s essentially libertarian, landing in that spot on the political continuum where the far sides bend around and nearly meet.
Naylor only seems reasonable in comparison to the blustering politicians, amoral tobacconists and manipulative wonks around him, but there are plenty of laudably old-fashioned good people as well, from the well-meaning Sen. Finistirre (William H. Macy), a Vermonter with bottles of maple syrup on his desk, to Naylor’s own son (Cameron Bright), who’s starting to figure out what his dad does for a living. For a movie that’s all about morality, it’s surprisingly easy to avoid picking sides. Naylor is one of the more effective antiheroes of recent years: “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong,” he says.
Eckhart fits the part superbly, building on his Neil LaBute experience with nasty alpha males (The Company of Men, Your Friends and Neighbors) to create a character that’s more complex than anything he’s done. He’s got the all-American look required for Naylor, but he’s also got the patience to sell Naylor’s unique approach to his moral dilemmas. Eckhart alone provides more sophistication than anything in last year’s Lord of War, Nicolas Cage’s gutless, clichÃ©d attempt at a similar profile of a morally flexible death merchant.
And the film is studded with cameo performances by actors handed roles in their wheelhouses: Rob Lowe goes back to Wayne’s World to play a workaholic studio executive meeting with Naylor about ways to get actors to smoke in movies again, while Sam Elliott is a Marlboro Man-type of a cowboy who’s now dying of cancer and speaking out bitterly against tobacco'until Naylor shows up with a briefcase of money. Even the seemingly sane Katie Holmes briefly beguiles Naylor as a Washington Probe reporter looking for dirt.
After this rich, clever, stylish trip, the final frames of Thank You for Smoking focus on Naylor’s willingness to believe his own spin when it comes to his son. One more time, Reitman finds a comprehensible way to view a complicated issue, one that takes a stand but doesn’t take sides. Naylor’s moral shenanigans are no more impressive than Reitman’s ability to carry on a conversation from both sides of his mouth.