Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is a tobacco lobbyist and the guy responsible for convincing you that no one can prove cigarettes kill people. Of course, he knows they kill people. He's constantly talking about it off the record. Every day, 1,200 people die: This isn't an ethical quandary for Nick, it's reality. Cigarettes kill; he's paid to talk his way around that point. He lives in a world where executives are ruthlessly efficient, liberal ideologues are decidedly not; where Hollywood power brokers are institutionally amoral and where journalists will sleep with anyone to get a story. Everyone -- absolutely everyone -- in this sphere has a secret that can be flipped, a story that can be spun.
A blazingly fast mix of high- and lowbrow humor, non sequiturs, sight gags, puns and cleverly built-up in-jokes, Reitman's sharp script and flashy, self-assured direction create humor that pummels you from all directions, even striding confidently into high art. When Naylor is kidnapped, stripped, dosed with dozens of nicotine patches and left for dead at the Lincoln Memorial, the cut-away depicts Nick naked, draped in Lincoln's lap like Jesus in a hilarious duplication of Michelangelo's Pieta. If you know Renaissance art, that's funny; if you don't, there's still a sex joke right around the corner.
Just as the film doesn't get bogged down morally to the detriment of its humor, though, Reitman never goes off chasing a joke that doesn't fit his thesis. This is an essay, remember, and it's an essay that, thankfully, has the potential to anger people. It won't be anger over the horrible, mind-numbing statistics of mass death or the way big tobacco maintained profits by consciously covering them up, though. By now, that's old news. Nor will people get pissed at the moralistic finger-wagging that such statistics incite in leftists. We're used to that righteous snobbery.
No, what has the potential to really make people mad is that, in this deeply polarized age, Thank You for Smoking panders to neither conservatives nor liberals. Reitman's script instead leaves Buckley's wonderful, gadfly libertarianism intact. It's a doctrine of personal responsibility and action. The film, beyond its wit, flash and charm, holds a real and modest hope that we Americans will be able to navigate between the perilous spires of unrestricted capitalism and proscriptive liberalism using, you know, common sense.
Yes, Naylor is a "yuppie Mephistopheles." Yes, he's paid to spin your death into something positive for your killers. Yes, he makes a ton of money doing it. No, he's not going to change. That's life. He's got a mortgage to pay and a First Amendment right to talk a good game. You can't hate him for doing what he's good at, suggest Reitman and Buckley, but you can hate yourself for being tricked by him. And you should really hate yourself for not fighting back. So fight back, if you want to, or keep smoking. Whatever. Just don't plead ignorance.