Sunday, March 18, 2018

Thank You for Smoking

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Christopher Buckley, on whose novel this 2005 film is based, has no love for the tobacco industry because of personal reasons. His father, conservative writer and television personality William F. Buckley, Jr., died of emphysema, and, despite his political leanings, the elder Buckley wanted smoking eliminated. However, screenwriter and director Jason Reitman’s movie sees everything as fair game here, and satirizes Hollywood, the press, corporations, and politicians in his story.
The credits are written on cigarette packs, obviously referring to the subject of the film, but also stressing packaging. Much of the film is about spinning arguments, or packaging them, to steer the population away from the facts toward the tobacco industry’s viewpoint. The main character, actor Aaron Eckhart’s Nick Naylor (cigarettes as “nails” in a coffin?) provides a great deal of funny narration. He announces that it is not easy being the most “despised” man on the planet. He doesn’t blame people because he fronts “an organization that kills 1,200 people a day … I mean, there is Attila, Genghis, and me.” There is a shot of Nick flicking his lighter in front of the American flag. This image emphasizes freedom, which includes the liberty to make irresponsible, destructive decisions, such as smoking. Nick’s job is to “educate” the public concerning the findings of the Academy of Tobacco Studies. Nick says this “Academy” is run by a German scientist, Erhardt Von Grupten Mundt (you can almost goose-step to the sound of that name). This scientist’s job was to show that there was no direct evidence linking smoking to illnesses. Nick says of Mundt’s deniability talents, “The man’s a genius. He could disprove gravity.” We see Mundt experimenting on a rat as smoke fills the animal’s cage. There is a dark reference here to the Holocaust, and the Nazi gassing of Jews in concentration camps. The analogy here is that what Hitler did to the prisoners, big tobacco is doing to the populace. We have a shot of Nick speaking in fast motion, his mouth moving rapidly, accompanied by the sound of a machine gun in the background, implying that his warping of the facts can be lethal. He confesses that he gets “paid to talk” in order to maintain “spin control.” Nick says that the cigarette companies needed lawyers, so they recruited Ivy League lawyers, fresh out of law school, so they could corrupt them early, offering them cash and sports cars. We see twelve motionless lawyers smiling behind a table filled with books, a demonic version of The Last Supper, only all of them are Judases, and here they are betraying the public.
The story begins with a Joan Lunden talk show on which there is a bald teenage boy who has taken chemotherapy for his cancer. Nick is there to defend his employer. His capitalistic argument is that it is not in the interest of big tobacco for anyone to die, since they would be losing customers. He thus changes the argument by not addressing whether smoking does kill people, either through primary or secondary inhalation. He also omits the fact that as long as more people are born, there is always a fresh crop of clients. Nick pledges to initiate a fifty million dollar campaign to stop kids from smoking. His boss, BR (J. K. Simmons) is outraged, because Nick was supposed to only offer a token five million. But, the move worked, as the “Cancer Boy” shakes Nick's hand on television, as Nick peddled the idea of freedom to smoke for adults, despite its dangers, and avoided the issue of an outright ban on smoking.

This story takes place before the tobacco industry was found to be secretly addicting its customers, thus making one’s decision to stop smoking more difficult. So, at this point in time, Nick’s platform rests on the libertarian ideal that there must be no government restriction on an individual’s freedom of choice. However, he is on shaky ground when he talks about his work on parent career day in front of the class of his son, Joey (Cameron Bright). He tells the children that they should question their parents authority if they tell them that cigarettes are bad for them, and should make up their own minds. He is sneaky by saying they wouldn’t automatically believe their parents if they said chocolate was bad, introducing something desired and known to them, and not illegal to have as a child. It’s one thing to peddle his poison to consenting adults, but it’s quite another when he tries to influence grade schoolers. (This scene also undermines Nick’s argument at the end of the film that parents and teachers should guide their children about the dangers associated with smoking).
Nick meets for lunch regularly with the M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) Squad. Given what they call themselves, they definitely have an acknowledged dark sense of humor about their professional lives. Nick continues using his wit of exaggeration, as he did in describing Mundt, when saying that Maria Bello’s Polly Bailey (“poly” means many, which fits with her drinking a lot, and maybe she likes “Bailey’s” Irish Cream), as a “casual drinker by the age of 14” who “quickly developed a tolerance usually reserved for Irish dockworkers.” Appropriately, Polly is a lobbyist for the alcohol industry, and works for the Moderation Council. Like the tobacco academy, her employer has a beneficial sounding name meant to deceive the public. Ditto, the other M.O.D. member, actor David Koechner’s gun advocate Bobby Jay Bliss (“bliss” is not what he is dispensing, at least not for his product’s victims). Nick shows how warped this guy is when he says that Bobby Jay, after seeing the National Guard shootings at Kent State during anti-war protests, wanted to sign up so he, too, could shoot college students. He works for “S.A.F.E.T.Y.” (another deceptively positive sounding name), which stands for “The Society for the Advancement of Firearms and Effective Training for Youth.” Just as in Nick’s pitching smoking to kids, we have here the association of guns with young people, which is especially scary right now in the aftermath of firearm assaults at schools. These three represent and advocate the unencumbered use of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, which is what the law enforcement ATF agency tries to control. The film gives us mirror images to show the tension that occurs when freedom runs up against responsibility.
Another darkly humorous aspect of this movie is Nick’s mentoring of Joey. Nick is divorced from his son’s mother, Jill (Kim Dickens), who has taken up residence with her boyfriend, Brad (Daniel Travis). After dropping Joey off, Brad (wearing a white lab coat, implying he has some scientific knowledge) tells Nick that he hopes he is protecting Joey from second hand smoke. Again, changing the argument, Nick says he is the father, and Brad is just having sex with Joey’s mom, as if that point invalidates Brad’s justifiable concern. When Joey asks Nick, for a homework assignment, why is the U. S. government the best, Nick half-jokingly says, it’s “because of our endless appeals system.” This remark shows gratitude for a slow judicial system that prevents average people from getting justice for wrongs committed by conglomerates like big tobacco. Nick goes on to question what is meant by “best” which is a “bullshit” term, because of its vagueness. That uncertainty can be exploited by a person like Nick, who knows how to argue, and Nick cynically tells Joey that “if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.” He basically is telling his young son that you can spin anything to your own advantage (fake news anyone?). Later Joey shows how he has learned how to alter an argument when he presents his essay about American government in class. He says it’s great because of “love,” which of course is not relevant, but the word has such a warm, sentimental feel to it, that it’s vagueness and irrelevance don't stop him from winning over the audience (and he later is considered the best debater in his school).
Nick later tells Joey that in his job he has to have “a certain moral flexibility.” He says just like child murderers deserve a legal defense, so do multinational corporations. The association between these two implies that the companies are just as scary as other predators. Instead of qualifying whether his “moral flexibility” is a good thing, he proceeds to show how he works his magic. He poses the question of whether chocolate or vanilla ice cream is the best. Of course, nobody can really argue that point, because it comes down to individual taste. Joey takes up the position that chocolate is the best, and Nick says “I need more than chocolate, and for that matter I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom. And choice when it comes to our ice cream, and that, Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty.” Joey rightly says that was not what they were talking about. Nick says, “Ah, but that’s what I’m talking about.” Nick is showing his son how to change the argument to one he can win. He obviously impresses Joey with his “moral flexibility” that can be used to scam people, because they are seen on a ride eating vanilla ice cream.

Joey is a quick learner because he convinces his mother to let him go on a work trip with his father. Like Nick he reaches his goal by changing the argument. She doesn’t want Joey exposed to Nick’s line of work. Joey says, “Mom, is it possible that you’re taking the frustration of your failed marriage out on me? … If you think it’s more important to use me to channel your frustration against the man you no longer love, I’ll understand.” He changes the discussion to one where it looks like he is the victim in his mother’s relationship issue, and does it with a facade of understanding and willingness for self-sacrifice. How could she not let him go?
Nick has a revelation while watching an old John Wayne war movie, which was made when smoking was seen in most films. His idea is that they will sell more cigarettes if they put smoking into films with attractive movie stars in romantic situations. It’s always about selling the product by using attractive packaging. He wants to make smoking sexy again, as it was in old Bogart and Bacall films. He flies to Winston-Salem, North Carolina (the home of tobacco) to pitch his plan to the big boss, The Captain (Robert Duvall). While on the plane, Nick says he likes to fly in the economy section to be with the common folk. He appears to be a man of the people, but he says if he can convince one young person (making him a life-long customer) to start smoking, he has paid for his flight. Again it’s packaging. Nick on the surface looks like a regular guy, a pal, but he’ll sell his poison to you so he can make a buck.

The Captain is a take on the self-made man, which is the the symbol of capitalist achievement. Only, this guy has made his money by killing his fellow citizens. He shows Nick how to rub mint leaves to make a mint julep, and says he was taught by Fidel Castro. He also says that he fought against the Chinese in the Korean War, and now they are their best customers. The thrust here is that making money transcends politics and ideology. He says to Nick that his grandchild asked him if cigarettes are bad. The Captain doesn’t feel guilty about the deaths he has caused, he only worries about how things “look” to his grandchild. He wants to improve the “image” of smoking, not the substance of the health problem associated with it.

So, Nick gets permission to go to Los Angeles. He flies home on the Captain’s plane, “Tobacco One,” which is sort of the evil version of Air Force One, implying that business  has just as much to say about the country as does government. Before going to Hollywood with Joey, Nick has a lunch with the M.O.D. Squad, where Booby Jay offers some arguments against blaming their respective companies for subsequent negative outcomes. He says we don’t blame Boeing for a pilot error or General Motors if a an individual causes a car accident. The argument is a sham of course, because their products can have direct cause-and-effect harm to individuals.
Packaging is also on the mind of government. Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy) wants to put a skull and crossbones on every pack of cigarettes. He is unhappy about the way Nick turned the audience around on the Joan Lunden show to his side. He tells his aide that the cancer victim they present should be in a wheelchair and have difficulty speaking. Just like Nick, he wants to sway opinion, and is not above exploiting another person’s misery to reach his goal. He also has numerous bottles of Vermont maple syrup on his desk. The senator obviously doesn’t care what all that sugar can do to one’s health; he only fights a cause that doesn’t conflict with his own interests.
Nick and Joey the fly to Hollywood. They go to the offices of Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe), who is a motion picture facilitator. His whole enterprise is a deception. The building is steeped in an Asian, Zen-like feel to promote a sense of peace and well-being. Joey and Nick, while waiting in the lobby, watch a Blue Planet segment on a huge TV screen. It is supposed to promote a concern for the environment, but that feeling is undermined by the shot they watch which is that of a killer whale devouring its food, suggesting the survival of the fittest feel of Hollywood, and corporate America. Jeff’s assistant is Jack (Adam Brody), and he too contrasts with any sense of tranquility. He non-stop talks, quickly jumping from subject to subject without pause. He first offers Joey some juice, but then escalates to coffee and then Red Bull, which he apparently gulps. Jack also tells the Japanese worker who is raking sand in a display to speed it up since, “that sand’s not gonna rake itself.” He makes some violent comment that’s supposed to be a joke to a co-worker about impaling his mom on a spike and feeding her body to his syphilitic dog. The laughter of the two men is supposed to make their exchange “appear” funny, but the reality is that there is a nasty undertone in the the business world. When Jack takes Nick and Joey past a pond full of fish, his emphasis is not on the beauty of the animals, but on how expensive they are, which shows the true priority of corporations.

Jeff, who according to Jack invented product placement, wants to put cigarettes in the future, in an outer space movie, with Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta Jones. They will make love while smoking. By placing smoking in the future it shows that it will endure, and any health problems in the here and now are forgotten by being distracted by the beauty of the movie’s stars. When asked by Nick if he has concerns about the health issues surrounding cigarettes, Jeff says he is not a doctor, but a facilitator who brings artistic people together. He says whatever information is out there and it’s not his role to decide for people. To do so would be “morally presumptuous.” Nick admits that he could learn a lot from this man. Jeff’s argument is a good libertarian one, but what Jeff leaves out is how presenting a hazardous product in a positive light does, in fact, try to influence the decisions of others. Jeff’s world is an edited one, as is the case with recommending Nick to co-invest with a foreign tyrannical dictator, because his personal dealings with him have been fine. He says he’s “fun,” probably just as fun as Idi Amin was when he wore Scottish clothes.
While out in California, the Captain gives Nick an assignment to buy off the ex-Marlboro Man, Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), who is dying of cancer, so he won’t slam big tobacco. Lorne is angry because after he became ill, the tobacco company turned its back on him, because he tarnished their image, and they even said that he never worked for them. He asks Nick why does he work for these terrible people, and he says he’s good at his job. Lorne, says, “Aw hell, son. I was good at shooting VC. I didn’t make it my career.” He makes a good point, since there is a difference between having to do something awful and choosing to repeat doing it, especially for profit. Nick is a good salesman, though, and tells Lorne he can get back at his former employers by showing the blood money they offered him to the press and then donating it to charity. Nick empties the suitcase full of cash on the floor that he has brought, supposedly to show how Lorne should display it to the reporters, but he really wants him to see how much money there is. He tells Lorne that the bottom line is he can’t accept the money and denounce big tobacco. Of course, Lorne takes the money. Joey asks his father how did he know that Lorne would accept the cash and agree to shut up. Nick says he saw that a person would have to be crazy to refuse all that money, and he saw that Lorne wasn’t insane. Joey asks his dad if he would have accepted the payoff, and Nick says yes. Joey then says he would, too. The irony here is in the presentation. The scene between father and son is shot as a warm, bonding moment where Joey shows admiration for Nick, who responds with a grateful smile. Again, the packaging says one thing, but what is really going on is that Nick is showing his son that greed comes before one’s morality.

Nick and Senator Finistirre appear on a Dennis Miller TV show. The senator says he wants Nick to appear before his congressional committee, but Nick points out that he receives mixed messages from Finistirre, who says he cares about farmers, and then calls for the slashing and burning of tobacco crops. There is editing in the argument again, since there are many crops that can be grown that do no endanger the citizenry. During the call-in section of the program, Nick receives a death threat. A very dark comic scene follows where Nick meets with his fellow M.O.D Squad partners, and they actually argue as to who is really worthy of “vigilante justice” based on the mortality rates associated with their companies. It is pretty upsetting when workers take pride in how many deaths their merchandise causes.
Nick is abducted and his captors place numerous nicotine patches on him, as a sort of divine retribution. He has a nightmare after passing out about inhaling deadly smoke in a burning building. Perhaps the toxic overdose of nicotine triggers a subconscious feeling of guilt for what he does for a living. The irony is that he had built up such a tolerance for nicotine that his smoking saved his life. However, the doctor says his body can’t tolerate any more and he must stop his cigarette habit. BR says they have public sympathy for once on their side since Nick is seen as the victim this time around. Senator Finistirre again shows the nasty side of government as he complains about Nick’s new popularity, saying it was a shame he didn’t just die. So much for the sincerity of his compassion for the health of others.

That public support doesn’t last long. Nick had allowed an interview with reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes). Her pleasant first name is deceptive, whereas her last name shows her to have a center that is empty of professional journalistic ethics. She seduces Nick, who reveals his meetings with the M.O.D. Squad, his jokes about smoking helping with population control, his idea for selling death-delivering cigarettes in a sci-fi film, and his grooming of Joey. He even says to her that the reason he does what he does is because “I just need to pay the mortgage.” (Nick calls this “The Yuppie Nuremberg defense,” which is another time the movie equates cigarette industry with Nazis). Heather includes all of this dirt in a published article, even though Nick had turned off her tape recorder. BR lets him go to put distance between tobacco and his now negative image (showing once more the importance placed on how things appear). The Captain has died of a heart condition, ironically probably brought on by smoking, turning himself into a victim of his own doing. In any event, he is no longer there to have Nick’s back.
Nick begins to despair, but due to an emotional speech delivered by Joey, calling his dad “The Sultan of Spin,” we have a deeply satiric, sentimental, inspired response from Nick, regaining his purpose. He says his job is protecting the disenfranchised companies, such as the “logger destroying forests, the sweat shop foreman, the oil driller, the land mine developer, the baby seal poacher” (with accompanying image of a guy with a club ready to do in the critter). Nick apologizes to Polly and Billy Ray, and at one of their lunches he gets an idea as to how to testify before Congress. Billy Ray orders a slice of apple pie, covered in cheese, and the dish has a tiny American flag stuck in it. Nick says it’s disgusting, but Billy Ray says, “It’s American.” There is that idea of freedom to choose, even to one’s own detriment.
Before showing up at Senator Finistirre’s committee, Nick outs Heather for using her unscrupulous ways for acquiring her information. At the congressional hearing, the senator says that the tobacco academy is biased because it receives its funding from tobacco companies. Nick effectively counters that the academy is no more swayed than is the senator by campaign contributions, implying that maybe the senator isn’t the right one to be throwing stones. Nick admits that cigarettes are associated with disease, but why single it out as the entity to have the skull and crossbones on it. Nick says the biggest killer is heart disease, and Vermont cheddar cheese increases cholesterol, so why not place the poison label on it, as well as airplanes and cars, since all of these things can lead to death. Nick makes a good libertarian argument that adult individuals should make up their own minds as to how to live, and parents and teachers, not government, have the job of educating children about safety. But, Finistirre takes Nick up on that point, asking him what will he do when his son turns eighteen and wants to smoke. Nick sticks to his argument and says if his son wants a cigarette when he is of age, Nick will buy him his first pack.

Even though BR says he did great at the hearing, Nick, perhaps because he finally feels guilty that he may send his son on the road to illness, won’t take his old job back. It turns out that the decision worked out, because after the cigarette companies had to make a huge payout for deceiving the public about addiction manipulation, BR and others lost their jobs. There is another shot taken at the government as Finistirre proposes editing out cigarettes in old movies, replacing them with silly objects such as party favors. He says he’s not altering history, but “improving” it. Shades of 1984.
The last scene has Nick now representing cell phone companies, assuring them that all they have to say is that “there is no direct evidence that links cell phone usage and brain cancer.” He has just moved on to a new product, but he is still spinning. Nick says, “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent.” But, if it's is a destructive one, should you, as Lorne said earlier, make a career out of it?

The next film is Brick.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please share your thoughts about the movies discussed here.