Thank you for making this movie

A breathtaking satire, ‘Thank you for Smoking’ lights up the big screen

Don M. Burrows

Damn.

Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” was supposed to be a political commentary about Big Tobacco and the deceit it has used to sell its deadly product.

Well it is, but it isn’t.

Either way, it is a good, immensely entertaining film – just not in the way one might assume.

Based on Christopher Buckley’s novel, the movie isn’t about smoking as much as it is about the decisions we make in our careers and how those decisions move our moral compass.

It’s also just plain hilarious, stuffed with politically incorrect humor and satire that pokes pointedly at the absurdities of our political climate.

Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is tobacco’s chief spokesman in the early 1990s. He goes on TV-news shows to argue with cancer society types trying to point out the obvious – that cigarettes kill.

Naylor is the iconic American spin machine, a caricature of our anxieties about big business and the public relations machine in an increasingly media-saturated culture. Perhaps no product other than cigarettes would have allowed Eckhart the task he so winningly pulls off: Making the audience like (and even identify with) a man of moral ambiguity.

After all, restaurant-smoking debates aside, most people today agree that smoking is a harmful practice, that it causes cancer, smoker’s cough and bad breath. But a large portion of the population still engages in the habit, and Reitman takes those parallel realities and uses them to hilarious ends.

Naylor is one of the “MOD” Squad, or the “Merchants of Death,” alongside spokespeople for the firearms and alcohol industries. When asked why he does what he does, he replies glibly that he must “pay the mortgage.”

This sentiment is what underlies the moral message of the movie: Who among us, whether behind the counter or in a cubicle, hasn’t done something in a job that runs contrary to our sense of right and wrong? Whether it’s pushing a credit card application at the cash register or defending a child molester at court – we’ve all been there.

“Thank You for Smoking” helps us laugh at those dilemmas by watching a man who at first seems to have no conscience about his work whatsoever. When he argues that smoking could actually be healthy for a boy dying of cancer, we laugh. We laugh at once at the absurdity of it, but also because we know that somewhere we’re guilty of the same twisted rationalizations for our own uniquely unhealthful behaviors.

Some have said good political commentary today must be satire, and Reitman’s film certainly qualifies as such. But it’s also simply about life, and therein lies its nonpartisan appeal.