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Freedom Fighter

Christopher Buckley and Jason Reitman make an antihero out of a tobacco-industry spokesman.

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Thank You for Smoking

*** (A must see)

Directed and written by Jason Reitman

With Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, Cameron Bright, Adam Brody, Robert Duvall, Sam Elliott, David Koechner, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy, and J.K. Simmons

Let us now praise the children of famous men. Twelve years ago Christopher Buckley--whose father, William F., has become synonymous with postwar conservative philosophy--published Thank You for Smoking, a rip-roaring satire of Washington spin doctors. Now Jason Reitman--whose liberal father, Ivan, directed such Hollywood blockbusters as Stripes and Ghostbusters--has made his feature-length directorial debut with an adaptation of Buckley's novel. Given their respective pedigrees, viewers are entitled to wonder whether Reitman, who also wrote the screenplay, will have mutilated Buckley's book beyond recognition. But as the substantially faithful movie version demonstrates, the story of Thank You for Smoking resides in that libertarian netherworld where the far left and the far right march shoulder to shoulder.

Libertarianism is still legal, as far as I know, though like smoking it seems to have been banned from public places. For all the lip service paid to freedom, and all the blood being spilled to vouchsafe it for the Arab world, few Americans seem interested in fully exploring the concept. The soggy center is intent on regulating guns, gambling, narcotics, pornography, prostitution, and over-the-counter antihistamines. This misguided impulse to seek protection from ourselves is at its most absurd when people file frivolous lawsuits blaming their own drunkenness or obesity on corporations. As most parents can tell you, every measure of personal freedom carries with it an equal measure of personal responsibility.

Nick Naylor, the wily tobacco-industry spokesman at the center of Thank You for Smoking, seems like a villain at first, the kind of guy you love to hate, but he's surrounded by so many tongue-clucking federal schoolmarms that before long he begins to seem more like a classic antihero--the kind of guy you hate to love but love anyway. Played with square-jawed bonhomie by Aaron Eckhart (In the Company of Men), Naylor periodically gets together for drinks with spin doctors in the liquor industry (Maria Bello) and the gun industry (David Koechner). They darkly refer to themselves as the MOD Squad--for "Merchants of Death"--but they're also dismayed by the government's ever-growing intrusion into people's lives. When Koechner tells Bello that you can beat a police Breathalyzer test by sucking on activated charcoal tablets, and points out that "there's no law against charcoal," all three of them, in unison, add: "Yet!"

This subtext has a way of sneaking up on reader and viewer alike because Buckley is so generous with his mockery, skewering every political position, and because the primary subject of Thank You for Smoking is the professional spin doctor. Naylor is a high priest of this black art: invited onto a TV talk show, he's pitted against a trio of antismoking advocates and a teenage boy with cancer, yet by the end of the show he's won the kid over to his side and isolated the other three panelists, who don't know what hit them. Like the global arms merchant played by Nicolas Cage in the sadly overlooked Lord of War, Naylor is so good at what he does and so happy in his craft that you're forced to give the devil his due. He doesn't undergo any dark night of the soul or squishy redemption because there really is a guiding principle behind his chicanery: grown adults should be expected to take responsibility for their own actions.

The idea emerges in the movie's darkest story line, when Naylor is dispatched by his employers at the Academy of Tobacco Studies to put out a dangerous brush fire: Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), a cowboy who spent years posing for cigarette ads, has contracted lung cancer and become a vocal opponent of the tobacco industry. (Buckley based his character on Wayne McLaren, a real-life Marlboro Man who died in 1992 at age 51.) Naylor arrives at Lutch's ranch with a suitcase full of hush money, and Lutch is understandably outraged. Playing him like a piano, Naylor suggests that Lutch call a press conference to denounce the corporate payoff and then donate the money to charity. This stops the cowboy in his tracks: he'd rather denounce the companies and keep the money. "How's that going to look?" Naylor asks. "It's blood money." When Lutch accepts the payoff and quietly discontinues his antismoking campaign, he's only conceding that taking money to endorse cigarettes was always a personal choice.

Naylor's real antagonist is the progressive Vermont senator Ortolan Finistirre--a thinly fictionalized Bernie Sanders--whose persnickety liberalism is nicely exemplified by the thermal socks he wears under his sandals. All the movie's supporting characters are sublimely cast--Robert Duvall as an aging tobacco lion, Rob Lowe as a vain Hollywood superagent--and as Finistirre, William H. Macy is appropriately irritable. Naylor and Finistirre spend most of the movie dimly regarding each other in the media, but they face off at the climax, when the senator calls the spokesman to his subcommittee hearings on regulating tobacco. Finistirre has proposed that every box of smokes carry a skull-and-crossbones sticker, and he's none too happy when Naylor, pointing out that the number one killer in America is cholesterol, suggests the same label be applied to every package of Vermont cheddar cheese.

Finistirre delivers the ultimate low blow when he asks Naylor if he'll allow his young son Joey, who's sitting in the gallery, to smoke once he comes of age. Joey appears as a character in Buckley's novel, but Reitman has made Naylor's warm relationship with his son (played by ubiquitous child actor Cameron Bright) the emotional center of the movie. "What your children have to say about you means something to you," Reitman explains in the press notes. "I wanted to develop who Nick was in Joey's eyes." In both narrative and thematic terms, this decision turns out to be a masterstroke: not only does it humanize Naylor, whose opponents view him as the Antichrist, but it crystallizes his attitude toward the government when he replies to Finistirre, "I'd buy him his first pack." That's the kind of father we could all use--one who understands when we no longer need him.

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