Tony Soprano (of the HBO mega-series The Sopranos) is a mobster whose stock in trade is intimidation and murder. Nick Naylor, a character in the just-released movie Thank You For Smoking (based on Chris Buckley's 1994 novel), peddles the addictive killer, cigarettes. He blithely sells his product to any and all comers -- age is not a factor in his business. Indeed, in a key scene, Naylor asserted that he would buy his own son cigarettes at age eighteen, if the boy so chose.
Are we to think Naylor was being entirely honest? Based on his prior behavior, there is no reason to think not. Naylor told us, and showed us, that he could win any argument, whatever the truth or falsity involved, by merely being the cleverer debater and forcing his opponent to concede that he couldn't prove his own point. "If you're wrong, then I must be right," he notes, winning a vanilla vs. chocolate debate with his son. Pure sophistry, devoted to defending and promoting a devastating worldwide killer. Yet Naylor seems blithely indifferent to the truly evil consequences of his skills.
Tony Soprano asserts his desire not to involve his kids (Meadow, a smart, pretty college student, and AJ, a ne'er-do-well rebel-wannabe high school student) in his nefarious activities -- but this is more talk than action. Indeed, on one notable occasion in an early season, Tony conducted a little mob business -- a gruesome murder -- while taking Meadow on a tour of colleges. Both kids know to some extent what Daddy does.
So, of course, does Naylor's son. Naylor is less subtle -- he seems to relish his son's admiration, even taking him on a "business" trip to bribe a dying ex-Marlboro Man into stopping his rants against his former employers. The boy seems to be dazzled by his dad's expert manipulation of the dying cowboy, and by his other verbal pyrotechnics as well. After all, as Naylor's final line of narration says: Manson kills, I talk -- everyone is good at something. Well said.
Tony would probably not be so forthright. Despite going through several years of psychotherapy with Dr. Melfi for his recurrent panic attacks, the mob boss is not a truly introspective man -- he still has only a glimmer of insight about the swath of destruction he sows (which, it should be noted, is minuscule compared to that created by cigarette sellers).
But, at day's end, the two characters are strangely alike: amoral "businessmen," indifferent to the consequences of their activities. Strangely, the families of the cigarette pitchman and the Mafia hitman are bizarrely alike: both remain silently complicit in dad's profession -- as long as the mortgage is paid, life goes on, in DC and in New Jersey.
Gilbert L. Ross, M.D., is Medical and Executive Director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com). Other Fears pieces on Thank You for Smoking appear here, here, here, here, and here.