Sunday, February 10, 2008

Thank You for Smoking

There are some films that start off rather unpretentiously but hit you real hard by the time they are over. Thank You for Smoking is just such a movie. The movie narrates the story of Nick Naylor, who is a lobbyist for the tobacco companies and tells people that smoking cigarettes isn’t harmless. Trouble occurs when an attractive looking reporter manages to get his secrets out during passionate sessions of lovemaking. The world already hates Nick Naylor and now he also loses his job.

The movie can be interpreted in two ways. In one way it is a satire about how people can turn any argument in any which way. Take Nicks argument for example. He constantly claims that there is no conclusive evidence that tobacco smoking is injurious to health. He also maintains that his lobbying is not really about whether people smoke or don’t. It is about whether people are allowed to smoke or not. It is about freedom of choice. Put that way, his argument has weight. But everyone knows that cigarettes are harmful, don’t they? Why let them have it then?

That is what Nick concedes to in the climactic scene of the movie. Yes, he says, cigarettes are harmful. There is no one in the world who really believes that they aren’t. But hey, can’t people decide themselves? Should they not be allowed the freedom to smoke cigarettes and die if they want to? Why should the government control smoking?

Having said this, Nick is faced with a deeply personal question. Would he allow his own son, who is sitting right behind him at the congressional hearing, to smoke once he turns eighteen? Nick pauses at this question. It makes him think. And then he answers – Yes, if he really wants it, I’ll buy him his first pack.

This confession shows huge moral courage on the part of Nick. Not only does it show absolute conviction in his belief in personal freedom, it also shows his trust and faith in his son to choose the right thing. It shows tremendous sense of responsibility as a parent – that he’d be able to instil the required sense of right and wrong in his son. No wonder then that his son thinks that he’s a god.

His son is shown to be writing a school essay at one point in the movie. The title of the essay is – Why is the American government the best government in the world? Nick ridicules this essay topic. To him it is ridiculous because the topic makes certain assumptions. It assumes that a) the American government is the best government in the world and b) it is actually possible to prove so. Nick asks his son to question these assumptions. He asks him to ask questions – what constitutes ‘best’?

The movie is about asking questions. Even about the ‘right’ or the desirable things. And just because we’re questioning the right things doesn’t mean that we’re opposing them. It is like giving affair trial to criminals. Everyone may know that they’re criminals, but they’re entitled to a fair trial. After all, how can we be so sure that we’re not at error and the criminal is a criminal? Similarly, how can we be so sure that smoking is bad? And even if it is, should we not be on a constant vigilance about whether we are at error or not?

It isn’t really about smoking at all. It is about at attitude, about a way of living. It is about self examination and self betterment. It is about change and comes through criticism and questioning. Nick doesn’t do what he does because he wants people to smoke. He does it because he wants to do it. He wants to question the establishment, no matter how ‘righteous’ is may seem.

This post is also available on TastySamosas

1 comment:

  1. I was particularly stuck by the style of presenting the opening credits. The way cigarette brands flow adn names appear on cigarette packets.
    I think i'll do a writeup on opening credits sometime. :)