Adapted from Christopher Buckley's novel, Thank You for Smoking stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, the chief lobbyist for the Academy of Tobacco Studies, an ostensibly scientific-research organization funded and controlled by the tobacco companies. The Academy of Tobacco Studies exists not to inform but to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking. Nick's job is to promote the Academy's reports and wield whatever arguments he can concoct to keep legislators from placing increased restrictions on the sale of cigarettes, and he's devilishly good at it. Nick is handsome, cheerful, intelligent and quick witted. He is paid well and is able to afford a highly comfortable lifestyle, and is in no way embarrassed about what he does.
His mode of operation is revealed from the outset when he appears on The Joan Lunden Show along with several anti-smoking activists and a 15-year-old boy dying of cancer. The other panelists want to humiliate and intimidate Nick by constantly referencing the dying child, but Nick stands his ground and argues that his opponents want the child to die as a symbol of the dangers of smoking while he's the only one who wants to keep the boy alive so the child can keep buying cigarettes.
Nick is divorced, but he still plays weekend dad to his 12-year-old son, Joey (Cameron Bright). We don't question Nick's devotion to his son, but he really isn't a very good father. Instead of insist that Joey do well in school, Nick tries to teach the boy how to use rhetorical tricks and sly debating tactics rather than really mastering assigned material. So we're increasingly uncomfortable that Joey seems to idolize his dad as a man who can always wiggle out of tight spots with his adversaries and, therefore, as a hero. Our discomfort with this father-son relationship might work were it created in the service of some lesson for Nick to learn. But it isn't, and thus appears mysteriously uncontrolled.
Nick's duties require that he match wits with Ortolan Finistirre (William H. Macy), a Vermont senator who wants to put a "skull and crossbones" on all cigarette packs. Nick attacks the senator for representing a state that brags about its cheese production and argues that cholesterol kills more people than tobacco. Nick is also assigned to provide a "gift" of $1 million to the former Marlborough Man (Sam Elliot), who is dying of lung cancer. Nick's bosses don't want to bribe him, but they'd appreciate his not doing any more interviews about his condition. In addition, Nick makes contact with a big Hollywood producer (Rob Lowe) to promote the idea of big sexy stars doing a lot more smoking in their pictures. The producer is interested but thinks the films would have to be set in the past or the future or else you couldn't account for why other contemporary characters wouldn't complain about their smoking.
As a diversion from his work, Nick meets for a weekly lunch with his two counterparts in the alcohol and firearms industries. Polly Bailey (Maria Bello) works for a lobbying agency called Moderation Control while Billy Jay Bliss (David Hoecher) heads an organization called S.A.F.E.T.Y. Much of the dark humor in the picture proceeds from their sarcastic interaction, including a debate about which of them represents the most disreputable group responsible for the most annual deaths. Nick is proud of his decisive victory in this regard.
And here is where the film delivers its sharpest nudge in the ribs. Overall, Thank You for Smoking can be faulted for having too little to say, for being, frankly, a little too enamored of its own central character. Nick Naylor is never really made to atone for his considerable sins. Still, if we see the film's point as a greater one about the ubiquitous nature of spin control, its treatment of Nick can be seen as comment on the whole of our society's having lost its instinct for truth. Everybody's doing it, and those of us subject to it let them all get away with it.