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Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley, writer/director Jason Reitman's satirical comedy stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, a chief spokesman for Big Tobacco. Confronted by health zealots and an opportunistic senator who wants to put poison labels on cigarette packs, Nick goes on a PR offensive, spinning away the dangers of smoking. He claims he's just doing what it takes to pay the mortgage, but then begins to think about how this makes him look in the eyes of his young son. Co-starring Maria Bello, Robert Duvall, Rob Lowe, William H. Macy and Katie Holmes.
 

He looked about 5" 10'' in a black Armani suit and a tan that made him resemble above all things a talent agent. However, unlike an agent, his smile felt sincere. Most notably, his posture boasted an upright lightness that made him seem––of all things—guilt free.

He was the public spokesman for an industry that until recently was perfectly happy to remain a faceless operation, hiding behind characters like Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. But with cigarette companies folding into much larger food conglomerates and settlements being announced by the day, it was time for Big Tobacco to take the public stage. The grinning man before us worked for Philip Morris, which had recently renamed itself Altria (no kidding). Apparently Benevolencia and Humanataria were considered too vulgar.

The evening occurred halfway through a five-year search for financing to direct my screenplay Thank You For Smoking. I was invited to the political equivalent of a heavyweight title fight. Jeff Wigand, the former tobacco executive-turned-informant (most famous for his portrayal by Russell Crowe in the film The Insider), was going toe-to-toe with a real-life tobacco spokesman for a live audience.

Wigand spoke first. Now let me preface this by saying I think Jeff Wigand is an incredible American and one of the bravest men I’ve ever met. That said, he just might be better suited standing up to Big Tobacco than standing before an audience of two hundred people. Even if he reconsidered the disheveled university professor look (elbow patches, etc.), it would be hard to understand how a man could sweat so much before an audience that was so unanimously supportive.

He flew through his prepared statements quickly, having obviously delivered them before. The statistics, as shocking as they often were, couldn’t fully be appreciated due to the rapid way in which they were propelled to the audience. His mind often moved so fast that he would drop words without noticing. He was the best money couldn’t buy.

The most enjoyable part of all this was watching the tobacco spokesman react to the litany of accusations being launched from the other side of the stage. As the statements got nastier and nastier, the guy in the Armani suit just kept nodding with a compassionate smile. I can only compare it to the way a groom responds to being roasted by his best man at a wedding. If Wigand brought up something like cigarette vending machines at publicly funded daycare centers, the spokesman’s response would be something akin to, Yup, that was us. I can’t believe you remember that!

I couldn’t help it. I loved this guy. He represented the same charming swagger I fell in love with in Nick Naylor, the lead character of Christopher Buckley’s novel Thank You For Smoking. After a half hour of what could only be described as tobacco bashing met by euphoric applause on a religious level, we were introduced to the best money could buy. The man in the suit nodded to the audience with a little wave that said, I know you’d like to lynch me, but perhaps we can have a chat?

The man from Big Tobacco began talking about Altria’s views of the future. None of which were overtly offensive. As you might imagine, he made generous use of the words “freedom,” “choice” and “liberty.” He talked so sincerely about putting an end to the segregation of smokers and non-smokers, that I couldn’t help wishing he began his speech, I have a dream.

The highlight of the evening occurred when a seething local man questioned why Big Tobacco was thwarting a new law set to designate California apartment buildings as either smoking or non-smoking. Again, the spokesman smiled. Then, he said the following:

Well, this law is just another example of the rich trying to suppress the poor. Sure, if you’re wealthy enough to afford a house, you can choose whether or not to smoke. But if you can’t afford a house and are forced to rent, that choice…that right is taken away. Well, if there’s anything we believe in at Altria, it’s freedom. We will not stand by and watch as a person’s rights are taken away.

The answer came off ridiculous but, to a certain extent, wasn’t that far off from what I believe. I do believe people should have the right to smoke. Just as I believe people should have the right to be stupid, wear hammer pants and harm themselves irrevocably if their heart truly desires. The man who asked the question was so stunned by the answer that he just sat back down in confusion. Then the spokesman simply scanned the crowd with a smile for the next person.

Toward the end of the evening, I raised my hand. The man from Big Tobacco saw me and pointed me out. A nearby usher brought a microphone to my lips. I then asked the man, Sir, do you have children? This was a question posed to the main character of my movie and I wanted to try it out on the real McCoy.

For a split-second, the man’s smile faded. I understand why. Nothing good could come of this introduction. I was making it personal. No one likes that. But his smile returned and he responded cautiously, Yes, I’m the proud father of two.

Just as in my screenplay, I followed up with, What would you do if you caught them smoking? He thought about this for a second, then looked back up and said, I love my children. I want them to be fully aware of the realities of smoking.

I never spoke to anyone else from Big Tobacco throughout the process of making my film. Jeff Wigand did read the screenplay and offered me plenty of notes. All of them correcting various statistical errors. When I asked him whether he thought it was funny, he responded, I find the screenplay inaccurate in places.