”Thank You for Smoking”: Presenting a rebel hero
A rebel, the last time I checked, is supposed to be the guy who breaks the rules. He’s the one who pokes his finger in the establishment’s eye, who ”does the right thing” by doing the wrong thing. Yet there’s a movie out right now with a true-blue, old-school rebel hero — perhaps the first one we’ve seen on screen since 8 Mile — and it’s a sign of what a culturally cautious era we’ve entered that even most of the critics who love the movie, who’ve praised it as a breezy and funny and charged entertainment, seem to be saluting every aspect of the hero except the thing that makes him so naughtily, subversively appealing.
In Thank You for Smoking, Aaron Eckhart, as the chief lobbyist for Big Tobacco, presents himself as a guy who could sell snake oil to a snake-oil salesman. He’s always spinning — yet the sly joke of the movie is that his presentation of himself as the ultimate yuppie devil is itself a form of spin. The delicious thing about Eckhart’s Nick Naylor is that even as he’s lying through his teeth about the hazards of smoking, he’s telling a lie that fools virtually no one — and so, in a sense, the lying is itself a form of smoke-and-mirrors. The true, underlying purpose of Nick’s job is to preserve the right to smoke in a world that wants, increasingly, to legislate behavior. That would include virtually everyone he encounters: the politicians, reporters, physicians, parents, and assorted other contempo guardians of authoritarian correctness.
In a sense, movie critics have made themselves part of that mob. Nick has been treated as if he’s a personally charming, verbally dextrous rogue whose profession is, simply put, indefensible. It’s as if he were a slimy underworld lawyer or Karl Rove. But the clever design of Thank You for Smoking is that Nick is a liar in a world of even bigger liars, of purebred hypocrites — the Zen superagent (Rob Lowe) who’s only too happy to feature a sexy smoking scene in a Brad Pitt-Catherine Zeta-Jones movie provided that the profit participation is high enough, the fusty authoritarian stooge of a senator (William H. Macy) who considers himself a liberal yet wants to demonize cigarettes by branding them as poison.
What could possibly be wrong with that, you ask? Aren’t cigarettes toxic? Hasn’t the tobacco industry lied about that fact for decades? Of course and of course. Yet the dangers (and addictive powers) of smoking, far from being some big secret, have undergirded public policy for decades. The surgeon general’s warning box was required in 1964; television ads for smoking were banned within the next decade; and it has long been part of public-school policy to teach kids about the dangers of cigarettes.
The demonization of smoking, on the other hand, is something different: It’s about saying that cigarette companies are responsible for what people choose to do. Which is really a way of removing people’s responsibility and — in the process — their sense of choice. That’s what Nick Naylor, in his willingness to defend the indefensible, stands for. And it’s why, in addition to being a silver-tongued salesman, he’s a rebel in a world where ”the good guys” are the people who want to force you to do what’s good for you.