Michael Kinsley famously said that the crime in campaign finance is not what’s illegal — it’s what’s legal. That also applies to campaign finance’s even sleazier cousin, lobbying.
Lobbyists are paid by groups, mostly business groups, to prevent legislators from writing laws that they perceive as harmful to their interests and encourage them to pass laws that protect and enchance their interests. Every industry, every company, every special interest, every person is represented by someone with a firm handshake and an easy smile who knows how to use money, information, friends and enemies, more money, carefully selected facts, an ability to shift the focus of the argument, publicity and secrecy and even more money, to get what they want.
And no one is better at it than Nick (as in “Old Nick?”) Naylor (as in Nail-er?), played by Aaron Eckhart. He represents the association with the most money and the worst public relations problem: the tobacco industry. Put Nick on a television talk show with cancer victims and he will explain that the tobacco industry doesn’t want anyone to die — they’d be losing a customer. Then he does a judo flip on the argument and turns it into a discussion of freedom and personal responsibility. How are you going to argue with that? A crusading senator, a scheming reporter, and a former tobacco company ad model turned anti-smoking activist find out just how hard that is.
This is not a movie about cigarettes. It is, in a way, about freedom and personal responsibility. When asked why he does it, Nick resorts to the “yuppie Nuremburg defense” — the mortgage. He’s just trying to make a living and take care of his family. How are you going to argue with that?
But there’s another reason he does it. He’s good at it. He’s better at it than he is at anything else. He is a master of misdirection. He can spin an argument like a top. That’s hard to give up.
On the other hand, Nick has lost his wife and his only friends are the lobbyists for equally unpopular clients — the alcohol and gun industries. And he has a son who is old enough to understand what he does. Can Nick spin his son? Does he want to? Can he ever stop spinning himself?
The screenplay, brilliantly adapted by first-time director Jason Reitman from the novel by Christopher Buckley, crackles with intelligence and insight, not just about the workings of Washington (and, with a
hilariously incisive cameo by Rob Lowe, Hollywood), but also about friends, parenting, work, tough choices, paying the mortgage, and, of course freedom and personal responsibility. Most of all, it is about the obligation and the challenge of independent thinking, of questioning assumptions.
Vivid performances by reliables like Robert Duvall and William H. Macy are master classes in one of the toughest categories of acting. They need to commit fully to the characters as believable dramatic figures but they need to do it to the slightly exaggerated rhythms of satire, and they both nail it. The under-rated Sam Elliott gives his best performance ever as the former cowboy symbol of a rugged smoker, now dying from lung cancer. His negotiation scene with Nick is the highlight of the movie.
Maria Bello and David Koechner are right on the money as Nick’s fellow MOD (“merchant of death”) Squad lobbyists. The weakest parts of the book are the weakest scenes in the movie — a bungled kidnapping and involvement with a pretty reporter (Katie Holmes). But, like its main character, the film is less spinning than completely winning.
Parents should know that this movie has a great deal of very mature material, including very strong and crude language, explicit sexual references and situations, some comic violence, and a lot of corrupt and unethical behavior. The main character is a lobbyist for the tobacco industry and advocates smoking. His closest friends are lobbyists for the alcohol and gun industries and there is a lot of cynical and irreverent talk about the benefits of all three.
Families who see this movie should talk about Nick’s “mortgage” justification for what he does. What is the real reason? Is he wrong? Is the system wrong? What should the rules be? Who in the movie is honest? How do you know? They might like to learn more about the current lobbying scandal involving Jack Abramoff and reform efforts currently being debated. A transcript of a real-life interview of a Tobacco Institute representative like Nick is available here.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Primary Colors, Wag the Dog, Nashville, and The Seduction of Joe Tynan.