Viewed from a distance, director Jason Reitman’s 2005 dark comedy Thank You For Smoking is an exceptionally odd little film, precisely for where it chooses to plant the base of its moral compass. Imagine, if you will, a premise revolving entirely around cigarettes … in which the effect of cigarettes is not the primary antagonistic force of the story. Given the vilified nature of smoking and smokers in American society, as the segment continues to steadily shrink–only about 12% of Americans are reported smokers today–the thought of making your protagonist a man who “speaks for cigarettes,” who styles himself as the public face of the loathed tobacco industry, seems almost ludicrous. Making the character of Nick Naylor charming or likable to the audience in a way that doesn’t seem like manipulative tobacco industry propaganda should have been a genuinely difficult balancing act for Reitman’s film to pull off. And yet it does so effortlessly, thanks to the innate warmth of a single, undervalued acting commodity: Aaron Eckhart. Without him, there’s no way that Thank You For Smoking would work.
This I immediately concluded upon seeing the film for the first time some 18 years ago, and I left with the certainty that only a budding, 19-year-old film geek would probably feel: This guy was going to be a major movie star. Square-jawed and leading man handsome, he radiated some form of old-school cool that called to mind the visages of movie stars past–faces like Cary Grant, Robert Mitchum or Harrison Ford. Here was a guy whose name was going to be everywhere, combining the slick charm of a Cary Grant snake oil salesman with a more genuine sense of affable approachability not often seen in the top tiers of Hollywood stardom. He seemed like a guy who could beat you in a fight, but somehow become your best friend in the process.
And yet, it never quite happened. Aaron Eckhart has had an eclectic and consistent Hollywood career, but one that never coalesced into a run of top-tier leading man roles, as I found myself expecting after Thank You For Smoking. Aside from the major visibility of playing Harvey Dent/Two-Face a couple years later in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and a good run of features in the late 2000s, including the excellent Rabbit Hole, it feels like filmmakers have largely failed to tap into the same vibrancy Eckhart seemed to display so effortlessly as Nick Naylor. This has seemingly led to a gradual decline from the spotlight, in which the actor can increasingly be found starring in low-budget genre movies–films with simplistic, VOD-esque titles like Erased, Wander, Afterward, Muzzle, Incarnate or Line of Duty. It feels uncomfortably familiar to the trajectory of so many other former stars who have ended up trapped in VOD action movie purgatory in their 50s, 60s and beyond.
It’s not our intent here to disparage the quality of the career that Aaron Eckhart has had–he’s still getting plenty of work in both film and TV, including a prominent role last year playing former President Gerald Ford in Showtime’s anthology series The First Lady. The man’s phone is clearly ringing regularly. But it doesn’t feel like quite enough for the guy whose tender performance in 2000’s Erin Brockovich was hailed as a refreshingly sensitive portrait of blue collar masculinity. Where were the opportunities to play a great romantic lead in its wake? Is there an ardent defender ready to speak up for 2007 romantic dramedy No Reservations, which saw Eckhart playing a dueling fine dining chef alongside Catherine Zeta-Jones, sparking a relationship amid haute cuisine kitchen politics? Or is more fair to say that’s the sort of movie that largely vanishes from public memory within a few years of its release?
Thank You For Smoking, meanwhile, has to be considered Eckhart’s finest hour as a leading man, a true showcase built specifically for his talents and charisma. His protagonist is a smug, unflappably confident man who surely could have been wildly successful in any corner of the public relations world, but instead relishes the challenge of specifically providing spin (i.e. bullshit) for a sector that is widely reviled, and with obvious reason. Nick Naylor has the ego of a prize fighter, unwilling to back down from debate opponents who by all right should occupy a tremendous moral high point over him in an argument. Time and time again, however, he manages to come out on top, often by highlighting the less-than-altruistic or hypocritical failings of those trying to engage him on his own turf. A master of misdirection, he always manages to steer the conversation to where he wants it, and remains charming even when he’s being overtly condescending. It just feels like there’s no genuine malice to his attacks–rather, they come from a desire to argue for the sheer joy of it. He’s a man who was lucky enough to find the perfect job to suit his talents.
Even then, though, the audience would still likely feel some invitation to see Nick as a despicable character, if not for Reitman’s wise decision to expand the importance of the relationship between Naylor and his young son Joey, which takes less prominence in the 1994 satirical novel of the same name by Christopher Buckley. This throughline, of Nick spending time with his son–and the surprisingly familiar and supportive relationship he maintains with his ex-wife–softens the profile of a guy who would otherwise come off as totally apathetic toward the welfare of the world, and difficult for the audience to relate with. The conversational scenes between Nick and Joey, like their discussions on the nature of public debate and argument, endear us to the character even as he’s teaching Joey some of his sleazier tricks of the trade, perhaps because Nick’s willingness to teach and not dumb down or hide his line of work shows a certain faith in his young son’s ability to make his own decisions. This point is hammered home in the conclusion, when Nick concedes before a congressional hearing that despite the fact that he’d rather his child not take up smoking as he did, when Joey turns 18, “if he really wants a cigarette, I’ll buy him his first pack.”
What, then, prevented Eckhart from snagging more major roles in big budget dramas or comedies in the years following Thank You For Smoking or Rabbit Hole? Perhaps you can point to his willingness to star in wacky and often poorly reviewed genre fare, which could have kept the actor from being perceived as a powerhouse dramatic, romantic or comedic performer. We’re talking about the man who played the lead in The Core 20 years ago, after all. And in the years following his highest-profile role in The Dark Knight, critically drubbed movies like Battle: Los Angeles and I, Frankenstein likely weren’t doing him any favors either. It may be that we simply missed the window when Aaron Eckhart could have taken that leap forward into A-list Hollywood leading man territory. Or maybe performing opposite of Gerard Butler in the likes of Olympus Has Fallen, or portraying an exorcist scientist in Incarnate, is right where he belongs. But as a fan, it’s not hard for me to say that I was hoping for more.
Today, Aaron Eckhart is 55 years old. He has a handful of films currently in post-production, none of which bear premises or casts that inspire a great deal of confidence. One wonders if, like Liam Neeson, he’ll somehow still be cranking out uninspired action fodder when he’s 70. Perhaps there’s still an Eckhart renaissance waiting to happen, but I find myself focused more on what could have been–a 2000s American film scene in which Aaron Eckhart becomes one of the biggest and most recognizable box office stars of the decade. It would have been interesting to see. I think, like Nick Naylor, he would have knocked it out of the park.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.