Thank You For Smoking

Posted: 01/10/2010 in Film Review [Archive], Review

Practically since I’ve started working at the video store I’ve been trying to fill the sizable gaps in my movie watching. Apparently it shocks and confuses people that I have gaps at all, as if I project some kind of image of a movie expert. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading about film since before my balls dropped, or maybe it’s just because I know how talk with an air of authority on the subject.

Which is probably what first attracted me to the protagonist of my latest in remedial viewing, Thank You For Smoking. Nick Naylor may be a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, but he’s also man who knows how to weaponize the spoken word. In his own words “I get paid to talk. I don’t have an MD or a law degree, I have a bachelor’s in kicking ass and taking names.” Obviously it isn’t a terribly deep movie, but it certainly is clever and insightful in terms of it’s discourse about what it means to be media savvy, which is the bulk of the plot.

Without ascribing any specific political context to the film- which I hadn’t seriously considered until after I finished the film- it’s a fairly straight forward critique of western media driven culture. What Nick shows us most convincingly is that it really doesn’t matter what you’re backing as long as you’re able to back it effectively. If this seems somehow cynical, you’ve really got to wonder where the cynicism is coming from. Is it Nick, who gleefully works the system to his advantage, or is it the system itself and our willing participation in it which is built with the expressed purpose of being manipulated by Nick and his cohorts? Interestingly enough, in the DVD extras director Jason Reitman mentions being decried by an audience member at a Berkley screening for not attacking the corporations and tobacco companies within the film, for which she was widely booed.

Reitman was more surprised that she seemed to be the one dissenting voice in the audience of what he described as being a libertarian minded film. It’s a fairly widespread problem, that young film audiences since the sixties- and Canadian audiences in general- not only demand a clearly liberal world view in their films, they will complain loudly in it’s absence. I’m not conservative in any of my politics in the least, but it’s counterproductive and narrow minded to expect to be mollycoddled by facile political parables. Keep watching guilt ridden latter day science fiction schmaltz like Avatar and you’ll start to think that the world is changing around your torpid rear end, that because you’re seeing some unrealistic strawman fueled whinge fest on the big screen it must mean that’s what’s going on in the halls of power.

One of the most basic attributes and powers of fiction is the potential to represent a multiplicity of concerns and perspectives, the very principle which totalitarian concerns assault first. The greatest strength of Thank You For Smoking is that it presents a world with no easy answers in which the binary forces of opposition at work look disturbingly similar when you hold them up to a magnifying glass. Perhaps Nick is only putting on airs of requesting that the American people be able to retain an admittedly dangerous amount of liberty and self determination, but then isn’t the Senator putting on airs of acting in the best interest of the public for political capital while accepting the money and influence of people just like Nick catering to other, potentially just as dangerous concerns?

Say what you will, but when his son grows up he’ll be making his own decisions on his own terms because he learned to think for himself from the best. Whether he buys that pack of cigarettes or not is rather moot.

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