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.
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.
The next film is Brick.