My Father the Hero

Thank You for Smoking

It’s been a decade since I read Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking. I remember it as slight but laugh-out-loud funny, one of the few books I did not hesitate to recommend to anybody.

The movie adaptation, written and directed by Jason Reitman, didn’t make me laugh out loud, but I was surprised at its modest depth — and the sources of that richness.

Reitman does a serviceable job, but his forcedly playful approach — look how much fun we’re having! — merely emphasizes the inherent thinness of the material. He dresses up his movie in so many ways that it’s impossible to ignore that what sparkled on the page needs some goosing on the screen. In critical ways Thank You for Smoking is simply too meager for the cinema.

It’s sacrilegious to claim that a form as degraded as the Hollywood movie is artistically more fertile than the venerated novel, but Buckley’s linear prose style — emphasizing the funnies — does not lend itself to ambiguity or loaded images. While it might seem that the author’s plot-heavy political farces are ideal for movies, it’s no accident that only Thank You for Smoking has been adapted so far.

It doesn’t help that so many elements of Thank You for Smoking are well-worn. Buckley’s Beltway targets are already obvious and buckshot-ridden — slimy politicians! guest- and audience-baiting talk shows! manipulative journalists! eeeeeeevil special interests! — and I wondered watching the movie whether I had outgrown the material.

Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a fast-thinking, smooth-talking tobacco spokesperson. Naylor, part of the self-described MOD (Merchants of Death) Squad, shamelessly turns the tables on his enemies, and not even Cancer Boy or Vermont cheese is beyond reproach. (Dairy cows aren’t the only bovines that aren’t sacred; even the exploited, indignant, cancer-stricken Marlboro Man can be quieted with a crass appeal to greed and an inspired lecture about public perception.)

Thank You for Smoking is, on the surface, a deeply cynical work. Yet the script is slyly but earnestly a celebration of the American republic — the idea that while our systems often don’t create morally proper results, they do produce fair and just outcomes. The public facets of our government (the legislature and the courts) are oppositional dichotomies — Democrats versus Republicans, plaintiffs versus defendants, special interests versus the public interest — in which skill is rewarded more than correctness.

The movie clearly articulates that Naylor is merely doing his job well within adversarial systems. When he wins an argument — when Big Tobacco comes off as a victim, or when he successfully frames smoking not as a question of health but of freedom — it represents less political corruption than the failings of his opponents. Nick Naylor only wins because other people let him.

The major achievement of Reitman’s film is that Nick Naylor is not merely an enjoyably despicable anti-hero but a genuine hero. Unlike the appealingly idealistic cheese of, say, Dave or even The West Wing, Thank You for Smoking is a silly, ridiculous take on the system we have, rather than the system we want. And in that context, it’s difficult to not like Nick Naylor.

Yet that’s not enough to sustain the movie, and without Eckhart as its lead, Thank You for Smoking would fail. The actor elevates the material, and brings to it nuance and humanity. With only slight hesitations — not dramatic hand-wringing or probing soliloquies — Eckhart suggests his character’s conflicted nature, particularly as he wonders whether his skill at manipulating the machine sets a bad example for his young son.

Eckhart’s great trick is that he embodies the very real moral quandaries created in our political system. How do you maintain (or salvage) your soul when you represent the bad guy in a sound, valid process that needs you? And how do you ensure that you don’t end up believing all the bullshit you’re paid to peddle?

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