11 December 2007


By now every hipster in America has seen "Juno" at least twice, except for me, of course. But I heard David Edelstein's review on NPR in which he mentions Jason Reitman's earlier film "Thank You for Smoking," so I thought I'd take a moment to revisit that film myself.

Essentially I agree with much of Edelstein's own print review. "Thank You for Smoking" purports to be a satire of spin-based Washington lobbyists, but Reitman and Buckley, libertarians both, admire their apparent targets too much to really savage them. The result, though it does contain some witty banter between the lobbyists of vice, is mostly saggy and half-hearted. It's as if the film aimed a vicious roundhouse punch at your face then, a foot from connecting with the bridge of your nose, it pulled up and patted you on the head instead.

The climactic scene, the film's big political payoff at a Congressional hearing, is a particular head-scratcher. While there's nothing inherently objectionable about the Aaron Eckhart tobacco lobbyist's "freedom to choose" speech, his assertion that "everyone knows the dangers of smoking" smells of question-begging bullshit. As he would surely know, the industry he serves has hardly been forthcoming about the addiction and health risks in cigarette smoking, having long abetted the former and obfuscated the latter. Only through whistle-blowers and government intervention did this become the widely known truth it is today.

William H. Macy's character is a humorless, broadly-drawn caricature of meddling Big Gummit, and it's hard to see where Reitman and Buckley disagree with his or the actual U.S. government's position on tobacco. Cigarettes remain legal, with a government-mandated warning label giving the public all the information they need to make the "personal choice" libertarians so value. Perhaps they feel such disclosures should be voluntary submissions by the industry which, in light of its own history, can't be taken a serious argument of any stature.

"Personal choice," while sounding great in platitudes, is ultimately limited. Much as I might like to pilot an automobile, my personal choice is quite rightly limited by the public-through-government's rightful objection that my choice would be a danger to society. But who would enforce such matters in a Libertarian Utopia? Bring it on, I say.