Saturday, June 24, 2006

Thank You For Smoking

Thank You For Smoking is the debut film from writer/director Jason Reitman, a man who has certain obvious advantages in the movie world (his dad directed Ghostbusters). Inevitably, there's a lot of pressure on people in Reitman's position to prove that they've actually got some talent and haven't simply jumped the queue on the basis of their industry connections. Luckily for Reitman, he certainly passes that test.

The film is an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's novel, which I haven't read, although apparently the plot deviates quite significantly. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a tobacco lobbyist, and the public face of smoking. As you might expect, he isn't a very popular man. But he's very good at his job, not because he can actually win any of the key arguments about tobacco, but because he knows how to charmingly sidestep them altogether.

There's a loose, but somewhat half-formed, plot - not so much a story as a collection of ideas that provide a backdrop for Naylor's character arc. He's feuding with his unappreciative boss. He's trying to get smoking back into films. He has to persuade ex-employees to keep quiet. He bonds with his son and teaches him the noble arts of spin. He argues antiheroically against warning labels on cigarette packets. There's a subplot with a reporter.

Many of these threads don't really go anywhere. A couple come to the foreground to create an artificial crisis as we go into the final act, and then quietly get dropped. Strangest of all, we never actually find out the identity of the people threatening Naylor. It doesn't matter, because they're just a metaphor, but it's still a bold move to leave such a major plot point unresolved.

Reitman gets away with it, though, because the heart of the film is Aaron Eckhart's strong central performance as Naylor, and his relationship with his son (a child actor, but a largely acceptable one). Crucially, Naylor isn't evil, he's just totally amoral. He loves his job simply because he's good at it. In his world, everything is up for debate, and once you've opened a debate, there isn't a right or wrong answer any more. How you frame the debate is more important than what you're actually saying. We're not supposed to admire him for this, but he's allowed to be somewhat sympathetic by virtue of being open about what he does, and because his feelings for his son are plainly sincere.

The standard resolution of this story would be for Naylor to have an epiphany and start using his abilities for good. Reitman goes the other way, as Naylor overcomes adversity to achieve precisely what he set out to do at the beginning of the film. Since his opponents are politicians whose anti-smoking policies are adopted for reasons just as cynical as his own, and he's allowed to frame his big speech as a defence of freedom of choice, it's possible to get behind him on this. On reflection it's a rather manipulative finale, since instead of changing Naylor himself, Reitman changes the specific issue that he's debating, in order to allow him to be the pseudo-hero in the final scenes. But then perhaps that's the point; Naylor is neither good nor evil, he's just an attack dog who'll argue either side as an end in itself. If anything, he prefers being wrong because it's more of a challenge.

It's often very funny, and Reitman is clearly doing something right if he can make me root for the pro-smoking lobbyist, no matter how ironically. It's not quite the devastating satire some critics would have you believe - allowing Naylor to remain an anti-hero isn't that groundbreaking - but if anything it's stronger for presenting Naylor as the morally neutral embodiment of content-free argument. A very good debut.