I recently watched the 2005 film Thank You For Smoking. Above all else, this film is a satire about the tobacco industry, more specifically, the lobbying firms behind the tobacco industry, and the political correctness that has permeated our society. Like all satires, this film needs to be taken with a grain of salt as it dissects a corporate entity that has been so vehemently vilified for the past 20 + years. There are some outrageous scenes and statements made but there are also some very poignant ones that ring true, particularly in today’s political climate.
The main character here, Nick Naylor, is a lobbyist for Big Tobacco. It is the first film that I have seen that focuses on a lobbyist as its main character who spends his time in the film explaining to others why tobacco is not as bad as everyone says. Whether this character actually believes his statements is irrelevant as the larger point he attempts to make (quite successfully I might add) is that he can logically prove his points to anyone, for the great thing about argument is that if you argue correctly, you are never wrong. Truth is thrown to the side as he attempts to divert the discourse in a manner that favors his (or rather, his employer’s) point that we are all adults and individuals capable of making decisions for ourselves. We don’t need scientists or doctors or politicians telling us what’s right or wrong, or good or bad. We simply must gather information on our own and make our own decisions for ourselves and our families. His character is a true Libertarian and he feels that the government should not be allowed to tell us what to do or how to do it.
What’s fascinating about this film for me is that it actually had me siding with this character and sympathizing with the tobacco industry. I personally do not care for cigarettes and am glad we have laws put in place that prevent people from smoking in public places. But I also recognize this is purely a selfish position of mine because I do not like to smoke. This film had me thinking more about individual liberties and choices that make our country so great, yet we seem to restrict or prohibit certain things because of personal values or morals. We restrict people’s right to smoke yet we have no restrictions on the amount of cholesterol that is allowed in our food. One great scene had Nick attacking a senator from Vermont played by William H. Macy. Nick recognized the senator’s hypocrisy by pointing out the hazards of heart disease brought on by high levels of cholesterol and fat that is found in products such as cheddar cheese made in Vermont. We all recognize the problem of heart disease yet nobody is calling for the prohibition of cheese or any other cholesterol and fat laden product. Granted, this is not comparing apples to apples as the issue of secondhand smoke causes for more of an uproar since it involves hazards for people who are not complicit in inhaling smoke into their lungs, but still, it raises an interesting point. That is to say, who among is qualified to make moral judgments for anyone else?
But the most thought provoking and prevalent message for me in this film came from a scene in which Nick explains the art of argument to his son.
To me, this is the essence of the political discourse in our current society of the 24 hour news network and politics in general. When an issue is debated, and one of the parties of the debate changes the argument and disguises it as something different than where it started, it can divert the public’s attention enough to the point where they agree with the point of view despite the fact that what they are in agreement with has nothing to do with the original question at hand. Our 24 hour news media does an amazing job of diverting our attention from the substance of what really matters and focuses us on trivial talking points that have no basis in reality or are completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. As Nick’s son so intelligently points out his dad did not prove his point that vanilla is better than chocolate. But Nick states that he didn’t have to. For if Nick proves his opponent wrong, than he must be right. And convincing his adversary is not relevant. What is relevant is convincing the masses, which is what our political pundits do on a regular basis. They’re not trying to convince their counterparts, they are trying to convince the viewers, and if that means distorting facts to suit their needs, then so be it. For in the end, it’s the opinion of the masses that holds the most power in our society, and every single successful businessman, politician, lobbyist, salesman, pundit, journalist, and person in power recognizes this. Too bad the masses are too obtuse to realize this. For in the end, they fail to do what our protagonist suggests we all do; think for ourselves.