Thank You for Smoking is a partly satirical look at the deceptions of the tobacco industry. The protagonist is Nick Naylor, a lobbyist for the Academy of Tobacco Studies (the analogue to the real life Tobacco Institute).
Over the course of the film, Naylor is depicted conflicting and/or interacting with politicians, the media, his bosses, lobbyists for other controversial industries, and his family.
His main nemesis as far as politicians is an anti-smoking Senator from Vermont, whom he “debates” on TV, and before whose committee he testifies in Congress. The Senator is currently pushing a bill to add a skull and crossbones to cigarette packages.
He appears multiple times on TV defending the tobacco industry, and gets involved with a hot reporter who is looking to get the inside scoop on the kind of work he does for her newspaper. Their relationship is presumably manipulative, but it’s left open for a time who is doing the manipulating, and whether giving in to what the other party wants concerning the newspaper story is being used to get sex, or sex is being used to get the other party to give in about the story.
In his interactions at work, Naylor and his bosses and coworkers openly talk about all the things the tobacco industry spent decades denying, not admitting, and obfuscating—that cigarettes are addictive, that cigarettes kill massive numbers of people, that cigarette marketing is aimed at getting kids to start smoking, that any anti-smoking initiative they get involved in is a public relations stunt intended not to work, that they generously compensate any rogue scientist willing to claim that the relevant research is still inconclusive as to the harmful effects of smoking, etc.
Naylor’s closest lobbyist friends are a man who works for the gun industry and a woman who works for the liquor industry. They call themselves the “MOD (“merchants of death”) Squad,” and regularly get together socially to help each other out with lobbying strategies, commiserate over what their enemies and employers are doing to them, and engage in sarcastic, black humor about such things as which of them has murdered more people through their work.
Maybe the relationship that gets the most attention is that of Naylor and his son. Naylor is divorced, and his son, who is about middle school age, lives with his mother but spends a fair amount of time with his father as well. The son is a bit troubled, or at least puzzled, by Naylor’s willingness to be a tobacco lobbyist, but also inclined toward hero worship of his father, and in time Naylor persuades him that his is a perfectly respectable occupation.
My sense is that the film bends over backwards to skewer both sides of the smoking controversy equally. But the problem is that substantively the two sides aren’t even close to equal, so the film has to put a thumb on the scale to achieve that equality.
Naylor is allowed to present all the classic pro-tobacco arguments and slogans, and they all are as hackneyed and specious in the film as in real life. (For example, the anti-smoking people are actually victimizing the poor innocent tobacco farmer, everyone already knows how harmful smoking is alleged to be so there should be no further educational efforts or warning labels or anything to that effect, to agree with the anti-smoking side is to not think for oneself but just to go along in sheeplike fashion with what self-proclaimed experts say, this is really about freedom and the anti-smoking people are anti-freedom and therefore anti-American, the tobacco industry can’t possibly want smokers to die of cancer because no industry wants to kill off its customers, there are other things that people do that have risks and you shouldn’t oppose smoking unless you’re going to oppose all of them, and so on.)
In general, the pro-smoking people in the movie behave reasonably close to how they do in real life. (Though I assume there’s at least some degree of exaggeration as far as how frankly they speak about what liars and murderers they are behind closed doors. I don’t really know, but I would think that people who have jobs like that, one, would have internalized a lot of the ideology so that what they say when being more or less sincere with each other is at least somewhat close to what they say in public, and, two, would have some concern that someone in the organization is or will become disloyal and expose what they say so they are careful not to say too much that could get them in trouble.) I mean, they’re slimy to varying degrees in the movie, but the real people being satirized are surely as bad or worse.
But in order to equalize the opposing sides by making the anti-smoking people just as hypocritical, evil, or ridiculous, Thank You for Smoking travels much farther from reality into satire. Most notably the Vermont Senator is a deceitful, egotistical, mean-spirited, publicity-hungry buffoon.
The difference basically is that the tobacco lobbyist makes the same kinds of claims in the same kinds of ways that real tobacco lobbyists do, whereas by the end of the film the Senator is pushing legislation that will require all existing movies to be censored by digitally removing all cigarettes from all scenes and replacing them with candy canes and such, something that, needless to say, no one has ever been idiotic enough to propose. But that’s the kind of thing that’s necessary to do if one is going to present this issue as if it’s some kind of debate between two equally flawed parties equally inclined to act from ulterior motives, lie, push things too far, etc.
(The usually wonderful South Park also sometimes falls prey to this tendency to choose targets from all across the ideological spectrum to ridicule so as to avoid potentially being accused of bias, in spite of the fact that in reality not all positions are equally ridiculous. There’s a difference between Scientology and the scientific consensus on climate change, for instance, and to present them as equally absurd and equally worthy of vicious caricature is simply dishonest—and on an issue as important as climate change potentially devastating in its harmful effects on public opinion.)
I thought the relationship between Naylor and his son was just sad in its depiction of how evil can be perpetuated when the source is a trusted figure that a vulnerable person very much wants to admire and not be in conflict with. I don’t claim to know if the movie is being pro-smoking in these scenes by associating smoking with a loving father and his son coming together, or if it’s being anti-smoking by showing an evil tobacco lobbyist as so corrupt as to be willing to tempt even his son into damnation, so when I say I found this relationship to be a downer I don’t mean that necessarily as a criticism of the film. But whether this element of the film was intended to show a good or a bad side of Naylor, to me it showed the latter.
Indeed, I suppose the primary feeling I got from Thank You for Smoking as a whole is sadness. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad movie—it is somewhat interesting, raises some issues worth thinking about, and is reasonably well-paced and well-acted and professionally competent in general—but the satirical elements mostly aren’t particularly funny, and what’s left is unlikable people doing unlikable things, with fatal consequences for millions of people.