Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

I think it was at the Auckland Film Festival - in July 2006 - that I first heard of this movie.

I'd somehow got talking to this lady who was enthusing to me about what a great film it was because, as I understood her to mean, it exposed how arbitrary, underhanded, and just plain false the anti-smoking lobby's arguments were.

So, nearly seven years on, now that I have today finally made good on her movie-recommendation, I must conclude that one of us had seriously misunderstood. Either I had completely got the wrong end of the stick of the point that she was making, or she had genuinely missed the film's message.

(a third option would see me missing the film's message this morning)

Lead character Nick Naylor is a professional tobacco lobbyist. Although a smoker himself, he's not actually that into the stuff, he's just paid to be. He's really a spin doctor. Throughout the running-time we see him giving interviews, appearing on TV, having on-air showdowns with politicians, that sort of thing.

In the opening scene - an appearance on a daytime talk show - he puts his foot in his mouth by contradicting himself almost in the same breath. He argues that smoking can't be deadly because the smoking companies don't want their customer base to die, and then straight afterwards announces a $25million campaign to cut teen smoking. You can't really have it both ways.

There's another scene early on with Nick's son, who he only has custody of at the weekends, and for a moment the whole yarn looks set to go off the rails in the same way that a child will afflict most modern films, but then things take an interesting turn.

As Nick flies around America carrying out his duties, he finds himself taking his son with him. Along the way he repeatedly finds himself explaining what it is that he is actually doing, and indeed the real reason why - for the money. Just for a change, the kid is not just there to enable the film's target audience to easier identify with Nick. He serves a stronger purpose as a device for Nick to explain to us the tricks of his trade (the film's true agenda), without having to spend even more of the film using narration.

Hence, we witness Nick criticising the speaker rather than their argument, broadening the topic from morality to freedom, and replacing an argument with an analogy so that he can exaggerate it and then attack that instead.

Nick Naylor: "I'm sorry. I just don't see the point in a warning label for something people already know."

Senator Dupree: "The warning symbol is a reminder, a reminder of the dangers of smoking cigarettes."

Nick Naylor: "Well, if we want to remind people of danger why don't we slap a skull and crossbones on all Boeing airplanes, Senator Lothridge. And all Fords, Senator Dupree."

Senator Ortolan Finistirre: "That is ridiculous. The death toll from airline and automobile accidents doesn't even skim the surface cigarettes. They don't even compare."

Nick Naylor: "Oh, this from a senator who calls Vermont home."

Senator Ortolan Finistirre: "I don't follow you, Mr. Naylor."

Nick Naylor: "Well, the real demonstrated #1 killer in America is cholesterol. And here comes Senator Finistirre whose fine state is, I regret to say, clogging the nation's arteries with Vermont Cheddar Cheese. If we want to talk numbers, how about the millions of people dying of heart attacks? Perhaps Vermont Cheddar should come with a skull and crossbones."

Senator Ortolan Finistirre: "That is lu - . The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese!"

The way he convinces the shotgun-wielding man bitterly dying of cancer to accept a bribe for his silence is cinema gold.

As you can see though, Nick's fluency in dirty tricks is a little short-changed in this film by the absence of a worthy opponent who can really stand up to him. Even when a woman reporter beds him and gets him to spill all his secrets, this hardly takes any intellect. To the end of the film it remains a mystery why such a smart cookie as Naylor falls for the oldest 'trick' in the book.

And there are one or two other disappointing moments when Nick's formidable skills are likewise let down by his less-able scriptwriter here.

The plot is refreshingly simple though, giving the characters and politics unusual room to breathe.

Then the middle of the movie features a misplaced kidnapping storyline. The kidnappers' forewarning him of this makes no sense at all, as doesn't the producer of the live TV show who doesn't see the hijacking of his show coming. The kidnapping itself is accompanied by comedy harp music, which hardly reflects the feelings of the character.

After Nick has been released and unexpectedly survived being covered in nicotine-patches, the kidnappers are then simply never mentioned again. Umm, I think you'll find they'll now be after him again to finish the job…? Nope, not in this film, which is something of a surprise for a flick about people's motivations.

In the closing scene, Nick's voice-over smugly remarks to the viewer "Now I know what you're thinking..." No you don't. Actually I was wondering how Nick's son Joey could be outside the building while simultaneously also being inside it. Like I say, this film is written very well, but not quite well enough.
On another subject, the picture is awful. Someone had the bright idea of tinting much of the film with a tobacco colour so that we wouldn't be able to see it clearly. No.

So, is this film pro or anti-smoking? Well, I'd err on the side of saying that it's anti, although that may just be due to my own cultural perspective. It's not really about smoking in the first place (no-one in the film is ever even seen having a puff), but more about the subversion of politics and the media.

Watching the news this lunchtime, about an entirely different subject, I found myself taking quite a different approach to the words of one of their suited interviewees though…

So, I guess I was convinced after all.

(available, if you're old enough, here)


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