Never felt so good in my life.
—Sergeant Stryker (John Wayne), The Sands of Iwo Jima
Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) talks for a living. He’s a lobbyist. While it doesn’t much matter what he’s hired to talk about, in Thank You for Smoking, he’s employed by Big Tobacco (here called the Academy of Tobacco Studies). This means that he spends his time arguing for “choice.” People know enough to make up their own minds, even when they don’t. And so, even if cigarettes are toxic, they’re not illegal, and so, nobody’s business but the folks who smoke them. And, of course, those who sell them. Nick lives inside a universe of niggly logic, an endless debate club. He wields language like a precision weapon—subtle and deadly. “You know that guy who can pick up any girl?” he asks in his self-introductory voice-over. “I’m him… on crack.”
And yes, he’s going to learn a lesson.
Thank You for Smoking, based on Christopher Buckley’s popular novel, doesn’t exactly damn or admire Nick. But it doesn’t quite grant him his utter nihilism either. For one thing, it gives him a son, Joey (Cameron Bright, officially overexposed), adoring and inquisitive, whose big-eyed reaction shots repeatedly underline that Nick has responsibilities, beyond the job. He doesn’t necessarily believe what he says, and when asked why he does what he does, he shrugs, “Because I’m good at it,” and besides, “We all gotta pay the mortgage.” He’s fallen into his career by accident, not because of some commitment or faith. Visiting Joey’s class on “What Do You Do?” day, he explains that just because your mother says cigarettes are bad for you doesn’t mean you have to take her non-expert word for it. You have to “think for yourself,” he says, knowingly. “You have to challenge authority.”
The ironies of Thank You for Smoking are not subtle. Making its case against lobbyists in the way that, say, Supersize Me made its case against McDonalds, the film assumes viewer concurrence. Lobbyists are bad, especially those who defend bad consumable objects. True, the most fun in the movie occurs when Nick meets with his fellow lobbyists, working for alcohol (Polly [Maria Bello]) and firearms (Bobby Jay Bliss [David Koechner]). They all get what they do, calling themselves the M.O.D. Squad (Merchants of Death), and sit around and drink in a red leather booth at Bert’s, comparing notes (and numbers of deaths) with regard to their terrible, hurtful, well-paying jobs. When Polly suggests that fetal alcohol syndrome is a most difficult hurdle for someone in their line of work, the other two agree—it’s hard to make a case for booze when it’s destroying little baby brain cells.
The M.O.D. Squad’s honesty seems refreshing, and in this is also provides sharp contrast with film’s other fall guys (and they are legion): the skuzzy Hollywood producer (Rob Lowe) who does business with the “Hitler of the South Pacific” as easily as he agrees to include cigarettes and smoking in his next SF movie (at least until the political winds blow against the lobby); the righteous Vermont Senator Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy) who wears Birkenstocks and seeks to make tobacco pay; and the Captain (Robert Duvall), the tobacco magnate who depends on Nick (or whatever talking boy is installed at a given moment) to ensure his access to mint juleps and black waiters with white gloves. Whether callous or dumb or egotistical, these stereotypes provide no new insights, just easy targets—mucky mucks with stuff to lose.
Nick doesn’t fall for their machinations (and even imagines he’s outsmarted them at various points). But he finds it harder to convince the debilitated, lung-cancerous Marlboro Man Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott) to give up his threat to out the companies for malicious intents. Arriving at Lorne’s home with a briefcase full of cash (and bringing along Joey for al little father-son bonding on the business trip), Nick puts on a grand performance for the old man. “You’re here to talk me into shuttin’ up,” growls Lorne. Nick doesn’t even have to do the talking this time: he just lays out what seem like moral choices, knowing that Lorne will make a predictable one.
Nick’s talking does get him into trouble when he meets up with Washington Post reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes, she of the infamous sex scene deleted from the Thank You Sundance screening). For whatever unexplained reason, he blabs crucial secrets to the girl (with “amazing tits,” as is much remarked), as if he’s got her wrapped around his finger. That her expose is not, in fact, devastating, but only galvanizes Nick to pulls a Madonna (yes, I posed nude: so what?), creates one of the film’s few authentically anti-nostalgic moments. Rather than see the press (such as it is) as either adversarial or heroic, Thank You makes it out as the tool it is. Heather and her editors have no meaningful political leanings, but are, instead, just as greedy, short-sighted, egotistical, and fame-obsessed as anyone else.
The film is less clever when it comes to the father-son plot. While Nick thinks for a moment that he wants to raise up Joey in his own image, he also begins to doubt the eternal virtues of moral relativism and tidy, soulless arguments. “If you argue correctly,” he tells Joey, “you’re never wrong.” Nick’s a great talker, Thank You submits, but he’s not right.