Thank You for Lying About Smoking

Full disclosure: my mother died of lung cancer, brought on by a decades-long addiction to the product satirized in the new film “Thank You for Smoking,” directed by Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman) from a novel by Christopher Buckley (son of William F. Buckley). So maybe I’m not the right person to be reviewing this movie.

By Thomas Garvey

On the other hand, maybe I’m precisely the right person to be reviewing this movie. After all, if it can make me laugh, it can make anybody laugh.

Well, I didn’t laugh much – although I did admire Christopher Buckley’s cool analysis of the central conceit of conservative politics: in a word, the co-optation of policy debate by indignant appeals to a floridly puritanical and pseudo-masculine idea of “freedom.” Marketing death in Buckley’s world is made to seem like the Berlin Airlift, or the right of the accused to free counsel – the American Way, it seems, requires that people be offered the temptation to become addicted to nicotine and kill themselves. These points have been made before, but Americans seem immune to self-knowledge on this score, and Buckley knows every trick of this particular trade (after all, he learned it at the feet of his father, its master). And much like his own father, director Reitman knows just how to pitch Buckley’s jokes (although he basically loses track of his plot), and Aaron Eckhart, with a jock-star jaw so phallic he really should wear a condom on it, is the perfect mouthpiece for the cocky, clever dialogue.

Aaron Eckhart in “Thank You for Smoking.”

Only there’s a specter haunting “Thank You for Smoking” – the specter of its own dishonesty. For it seems that Christopher Buckley has borrowed a page or two from the very playbook he’s pretending to critique: he, too, fashions his script as a kind of forum on free choice, and elides the fact that, in the end, cigarette smoking is about drug addiction, pure and simple.

Try to imagine “Thank You for Smoking Crack,” and you immediately perceive Buckley’s central problem: it’s hard to write witty banter about drug addicts, especially ones who can’t breathe. So the author only glancingly treats the subject of nicotine (by most accounts more addictive than heroin) and the industry’s manipulation of it. I counted only one quick reference to “addiction” in the movie, and no mentions of nicotine at all – and tellingly, while we hear over and over that Eckhart’s character, Nick Naylor, smokes cigarettes, we never actually see him light up, and he seems to withdraw from his habit with no trouble whatsoever. (This is particularly dishonest given the movie’s satire of “product placement” for cigarettes in movies – it seems Reitman, et. al., have succumbed to exactly the opposite syndrome!)

Of course the silence about nicotine addiction is necessary to keep aloft the idea that “Thank You for Smoking” is a witty moral soufflé that “doesn’t take sides” because “there are no easy answers” (which also allows for all kinds of snickers about the self-righteousness of Big Tobacco’s opponents). In fact, treating smokers as what they are – addicts – would drop-kick the idea of free will right out of the equation (and would render meaningless such “ironies” as the movie’s equation of cigarette smoke with the cholesterol in cheese). Indeed, including such inconvenient facts would require the film to portray Big Tobacco – and its cheerleaders at the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere – as essentially pimps for a gigantic drug culture (which is precisely what they are), and in short order, a large portion of the conservative self-image would quickly collapse. Indeed, Big Tobacco lost ground steadily under the Clinton administration because of precisely what this movie leaves out; from “Thank You for Smoking” you’d never guess why a slow political consensus coalesced that not only were smokers victims of addiction, but the rest of us were, too (via second-hand smoke).

So is it too much to ask a movie to play by moral rules other than those it ridicules? Perhaps. But somehow I don’t think my mother would have thought so, and I’m pretty sure there’s a really biting satire to be made about this particular biting satire.

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