Today in Movie History: July 18

Mid-July is blockbuster time — usually when the last of the heavy hitters shows up to crush the box office before giving way to the earthier guilty pleasures of August. A pair of great sequels mark the day, notably The Dark Knight: Christopher Nolan’s follow-up to his already impressive Batman Begins. In then ensuing decade, it’s become the stuff of cinematic legend, with shockingly perfect renditions of figures like Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) to support Christian Bale’s magnificent Batman. At the end of the day, however, the film belongs to the late Heath Ledger, initially a head-scratching choice to play the Joker, but who succeeded not only in making the character his own, but setting an almost impossibly high bar to follow. The Dark Knight opened 10 years ago today in 2008.

I wouldn’t normally include it, but it opened on the same day as The Dark Knight, and that bears brief mention. Mamma Mia! the frothy, bubble-headed adaptation of the delightfully cheesy Abba musical, isn’t what anyone would call great, but it can be a breath of fresh air if you need something light… and opening it opposite one of the most downbeat blockbusters ever proved to be a stellar example of counter-programming in action. It was also released in 2008.

Speaking of downbeat blockbusters, hi James Cameron! The once and former King of the World had already made a splash with his low-budget sci-fi thriller The Terminator when 20th Century Fox tasked him with a sequel to one of the jewels in their science fiction crown. The result was Aliens, an unexpectedly great follow-up to Ridley’s Scott’s immortal original. It took the franchise in a decidedly different direction, but also showed the versatility of the core concepts… to say nothing of the feminist watershed provided by Sigourney Weaver’s ass-kicking Ellen Ripley. (Marlee Matlin, you can give that Oscar back to its rightful owner any time now…)  Aliens opened today in 1986.

 

Movies for the Resistance: Thank You for Smoking

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Katie Holmes, Maria Bello, David Koechner, William H. Macy, Cameron Bright, J.K. Simmons, Kim Dickens and Rob Lowe
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Running time: 92 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 2005

 

Christopher Buckley wrote Thank You for Smoking in 1994 – an eon ago in cultural and political terms – as an attempt to understand what made professional debaters tick. He watched a tobacco apologist on television, insisting in the face of all evidence that cigarettes weren’t harmful, and marveled at how someone could, in his terms “sell death for a living.” Eleven years later, Jason Reitman made a very successful movie out of it, which kept the basic premise and satirical thrust intact. Who can stare naked evidence right in the eye and claim – with all feeling and certainty – that black is, in fact, white?

And now here we sit – twenty-three years after the book, twelve years after the movie – and see what hideous oaks have grown from the acorns they so pointedly mocked. Thank You for Smoking wasn’t intended as a broad-based indictment of our refusal to accept reality. It was specifically about lobbyists and similar figures: ostensibly nice, upstanding people who cheerfully lie about awful things in order to pay the rent. But what was once the realm of paid professionals has now engulfed not only the White House and its ruling political party, but a disturbing percentage of the voting public. The cancer has metastasized and currently consumes the very fabric of public debate. Buckley, and Reitman, likely had little idea how terrifyingly prescient their efforts were.

At the heart of book and movie alike sits Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart at his most amiable), who works as the chief defender of Big Tobacco and delights in his ability to debate the undebatable. The ethical failings of his employer don’t seem to bother him. Indeed, he doesn’t really believe in what he argues for so vociferously. He simply loves arguing, and because he’s so good at it, why shouldn’t he make a living at it?

That’s his version anyway, which a number of people can see right through. But he himself remains oblivious to the implications of what he does, despite a shattered marriage and obviously compromised duties like convincing a smug movie agent (Rob Lowe, exhibiting Maximum Smarm) to get cigarettes placed in his studio’s newest space opera, or literally paying off the Marlboro Man to keep quiet about the cancer destroying him.

The irony – and the source of the film’s humor – stems from the fact that Naylor never grapples with the moral implications of what he does. In his mind, victory through rhetoric is all that matters, and some of the most disturbing parts of the film come when he demonstrates the value of his skills to his young son (Cameron Bright), who gobbles it up. “If you argue correctly, you’re never wrong,” he explains, which sums up his fallacy in a single sentence. He’s wrong, of course. If you argue correctly, you can still be wrong; you just never have to admit it… which is another way of saying you don’t have to face the consequences of your actions.

Naylor can eel out of any situation thanks to his silver tongue, which leads him to believe his gift of rhetoric is an absolute good in and of itself. He defends tobacco not because he believes in it, but because it’s basically the Mt. Everest of indefensible positions. If he can convince people that cigarettes aren’t bad for you, there are no more worlds to conquer. The impact of his actions never enters into his thinking and as long as he never has to face the music, all other considerations fail to matter.

And he gets away with it: largely because his opponents are sufficiently inept to fight back (witness William H. Macy’s sputtering U.S. Senator), and because the media constantly champions razzle-dazzle over cold, hard facts. It’s no secret how pervasive that equation has become: allowing a craven, not-especially astute con artist to claim the White House in the face of all sanity and logic. Trump applied the same techniques that Naylor uses to get there, and continues to do so day after Twitter-blasted day. His flying monkey corps in Washington has resolutely followed his example – no matter his distasteful some of them clearly behind it – as does and the hard-core supporters insisting that he’s doing a great job no matter how high the wreckage piles up.

Thank You for Smoking soars as a movie in part because it doesn’t let Naylor off the hook no matter how sympathetic he sometimes seems: a pointed comment on the banality of evil and how nice guys aren’t any less sinister just because they think they’ve done nothing wrong. The irony depends on an overt “happy ending,” however, which lets people run with the stated message instead of the inferred message beneath it.

That, too, is becoming a sadly common tactic, which even eliminates the notion of verbal skill from the equation. Naylor, at least, knows his way around Robert’s Rules of Order. Trump and his supporters see no need to craft elegant arguments to prop up their untenable positions. Instead, they mindlessly insist that the sun rises in the west, using cries of “fake news” and media bias to avoid confronting the facts that fly straight in the face of what they expect the rest of us to swallow at their behest. The tactic works, at least temporarily. You need only ignore the basics of self-reflection and shame, and the longer you stick to it, the easier it becomes. (“Thank God there’s nothing to this Russia thing,” one online wag told me with placid assurance… two hours before it was revealed that Trump himself is now a focus of the investigation.)

And here is where the social satire of Thank You for Smoking connects to more sinister issues. Because if you can successfully argue that cigarettes are harmless, you can defend anything… up to and including 2+2 = 5. Buckley’s father was William F. Buckley, founder of modern conservatism and a man whose reputation hinged on ferocious debating skills. His son clearly saw the limits of that weapon, but what started out as a poke in the ribs has become prescient commentary on the central crisis facing our country. Facts can’t be confronted if the other side insists that they don’t exist, and as Trump’s disapproval ratings rise to historic highs, the remainder of his support base stubbornly insists absolutely nothing is wrong save for a “witch hunt” against their leader that needs to be stopped at all costs.

Every day they persist, they lend comfort and support to a monster. They know it, we know it, and the rest of the world surely knows it too. And yet, they see only an argument to be won, not a crisis to confront and address. “Victory” exists solely within the realm of public opinion, no matter how much wreckage it causes in the world itself. Within that context, the wholesale damage to our institutions becomes just another debate point to dismiss. Nick Naylor is a fool at the end of the day, and that makes him funny. But millions of people now follow his example – at the behest of septuagenarian man-child with his finger on the nuclear button – and that isn’t funny at all.

Today in Movie History: March 17

You’d think that St. Patrick’s Day would invite a flood of Irish-themed movies into cinemas but no. The Quiet Man opened in August, Michael Collins in September, Darby O’Gill and the Little People in June… even Leprechaun dropped the ball on this one.

Instead, we get Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s seminal masterpiece of the French New Wave: incredible, but decidedly not Irish. Shot chronologically in a documentary style and with a lot of emphasis on improvisation, it became an international sensation and today enjoys a semi-permanent place at the top of the movie canon. It opened in its native France today in 1960.

Elsewhere… we’re not the biggest fans of Julia Roberts around here, but we have to admit that — if you’re going to give her an Oscar — then you probably ought to do it for her brassy (and frankly irresistible) performance as a legal clerk turned environmental activist in Erin Brockovich, which opened today in 2000. It was the right role for the right actress, and we won’t begrudge her the immense success she enjoyed because of it.