I’m not at all sure what the few detractors of this unusually sophisticated — and frequently hilarious — satire on spin-doctoring wanted it to be, though I get the sense that they wanted it more squarely aimed at Big Tobacco. I suppose that’s understandable, but the tobacco lobby is such an easy target that an entire film aimed at it is too easy — a bit like spending a couple hours to conclude that death is a bad thing.
Or in cinema terms, slogging through Crash to learn that racism is bad, or through Lord of War to be hit with the supposedly blinding revelation that arms dealers are an amoral extension of our own amoral government. The result is a big, “OK, and your point is?” Besides, Jason Reitman’s debut feature has a somewhat different agenda on its mind — one where the tobacco industy is less the disease than the symptom.
The disease is instead the existence of a society not only based on the art of spin-doctoring, but also its bland acceptance of the spin. The targets here are finally not so much the tobacco industry’s perfidy, shifty journalistic ethics, the shallowness of Hollywood, or the equally suspect and downright silly tactics of political action groups — as they are us, and our own absurd tendency to believe everything we’re told, no matter how ridiculous and counter to common sense it might be.
Reitman is the son of director Ivan Reitman (of Ghostbusters fame), but there’s little or nothing of his father’s broad comedic style about his work. His approach is occasionally over-the-top as befits the outrageous material here, but it’s also sly and cerebral — words I’ve never seen applied to papa Ivan (nor would I want to).
Aaron Eckhart (who hasn’t had a role this good since Possession) plays the charming scoundrel Nick Naylor, the voice of the tobacco industry. He’s a man who makes a good living by arguing the unarguable — making a case for tobacco. His first appearance nails the approach. On an episode of Joan Lunden’s talk show he manages to completely buffalo his anti-tobacco opponents by painting them as villains who want special guest Robin Williger (identified onscreen simply as Cancer Boy) to die to prove their point, while it’s in tobacco’s best interest to keep the ailing boy alive and smoking. Palpable nonsense? Of course. And while everyone on the show is properly outraged, they also have no real answer to his charges, because he hasn’t argued for tobacco, but against their presumed callousness in using the kid to further their own agenda.
This crops up later when Naylor’s arch-rival, the absurd Vermont Sen. Ortolan K. Finistirre (William H. Macy) — a man whose desk you can barely see because of the profusion of maple syrup bottles atop it – argues the need for a skull-and-crossbones warning on cigarette packs in order to warn people who can’t read English. Preempting tobacco-company resistance, he concludes that the industry wants those people to die. That’s equally absurd, but it sounds good — and there’s a weird undercurrent of truth in it in light of a rumination by the high priest of tobacco, known as the Captain (Robert Duvall), about having spent 1952 in Korea shooting Chinese people, noting that the Chinese are now tobacco’s best customers and concluding, “Next time we won’t have to shoot so many of them.”
It’s this kind of sinuous layering that makes the film so much better than it might have been. With a film that’s very much in the scattershot tradition of 1960s British filmmaking — where everything’s a target — this kind of linkage provides an unusually smooth sense to the proceedings.
Reitman was extremely fortunate to get Eckhart for the lead, since Eckhart manages — against all probability — to keep Naylor strangely likable, despite being morally repellent. A less appealing actor could easily have sunk the proceedings.
Some people have questioned the reality of a film in which the proponents of tobbaco, alcohol (Maria Bello) and firearms ( David Koechner, Larry the Cable Guy) get together once a week for drinks and argue shamelessly about whose product kills the most people. Well, truth — at least before it gets a good spin — is often pretty darn strange.
Years ago I had a friend who was a lobbyist for one of the then biggest arms dealers in the world, and he told me that the most disconcerting aspect of his job was enduring lengthy, alcohol-fueled lunches where people discussed kill ratios between bites as if this was the most normal thing in the world. Why did he put up with this? For the same reason Eckhart’s character does what he does — “to pay the mortgage.” So how far-fetched is this film’s approach? I’d say not very. Rated R for language and some sexual content.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke