Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is on T.V. today. This is because of his occupation as a representative of the tobacco industry in America, a lobbyist who tries to sell as many packs of cigarettes to the public by downplaying the fact that their product kills the equivalent of two crashing jumbo jets worth of people every day. It sounds like a tough job, but Nick has taken to it like a duck to water, a smooth-talking huckster who, for example, can turn the T.V. audience's opinion around and end up shaking hands with the cancer-stricken boy the anti-tobacco campaigners placed on the show to make him look bad. But what does his young son (Cameron Bright) make of all this?
Thank You for Smoking might not have made a massive splash at the box office, but it perfectly summed up something of the time it was made, where health issues were making bogeymen out of all those companies which sold things to us we were well aware were bad, but bought anyway because we enjoyed them. It was adapted from the novel by Christopher Buckley by director Jason Reitman, bringing a jaunty snap to a subject that could have been a lumbering, staggering, coughing wreck of a lecture. Nick is an anti-hero who Reitman, assisted by Eckhart's predatory charm, treats as an out and out hero, which made some audiences dubious about what they were being sold here.
Much as buyers of cigarettes might do well to be suspicious about what they are drawing into their blackening lungs every day, in fact. The effect of this is that we want to see Nick get away with murder, pretty much literally, as everyone who tries to stand up to him is a self-righteous weasel to the point of an insufferable holier-than-thou tone. He meets with two other friends who as a collective call themselves the Merchants of Death: the alcohol lobbyist (Maria Bello) and the firearms representative (David Koechner). They all know that their products cause thousands of deaths a year, yet Nick feels he is the most put-upon of the three, what with the media breathing down his neck, not to mention the doctors and politicians.
Nick has an idea to make more money for his bosses, and that is to put product placement for tobacco into movies, venturing to Los Angeles and meeting Hollywood bigshot Rob Lowe, one of a cast who pitch their performances just the right side of parody while making you recognise the shark's grin beneath the surface. The agent decides that the way to the world's hearts is through making a science fiction epic that glamourises smoking, but before this plan can get underway Nick finds himself in trouble. He has been subpoenaed to appear before a government body who want to place a skull and crossbones on cigarette packs, and worse, he has been targeted by a vigilante group who want him out of the way, a development that skirts too close to overstatement.
But for all the smartass humour and razor sharp editing, there's a message about the malleable nature of truth here. The truth is that smoking kills those who partake of its pleasures in huge numbers, but Nick can make any attempts to hammer home this fact look like a serious infringement on personal freedoms. If people want to smoke being aware of the dangers, why shouldn't they? Probably because anyone dying of cancer doesn't think that their habit was absolutely worth it, but Reitman makes it look too easy to knock down the anti-smoking, and by extension pro-health in general groups, with doubletalk and manipulation of data skewed to back up Nick's claims. Nick's son looks up to his dad largely because he uses his powers of persuasion on the boy as easily as he does the public, and the film plays on Nick's guilt for being so Machiavellian, though not so much that he relents and changes his ways. Cynical, yes, but of its era, that too. Music by Rolfe Kent.