Smoke and Mirrors: A History of Denial

Narrator: Sharon Gless.

Narrator: Sharon Gless.

News flash: Smoking is bad for you … and the tobacco industry knew it all along! That grim, less-than-surprising conclusion can be drawn from “Smoke and Mirrors,” a nonfiction “history of denial.” Pic treads much the same ground as that recently covered by “The Last Cigarette,” but docmeister Torrie Rosenzweig’s feature is less satirical and repetitious, delivering a stronger impact overall. It also has a powerful ally that might ensure longer-term exposure, at least outside the commercial sector: In exchange for access to certain corporate archival materials without risk of lawsuit, the film is being distributed to nonprofit educational venues in perpetuity by the American Lung Assn. Broadcast dates are also likely, limited theatrical play possible.

Unlike “Last Cigarette,” a campy “That’s Entertainment!”–style compendium of tobacco advertising propaganda from the “Atomic Cafe” team that excluded talking-head commentators, “Smoke and Mirrors” takes the conventional, cautionary docu approach. Academics, journalists and other non-industry experts appear onscreen to chronicle the “little cigar’s” deadly Stateside history. Thesp Sharon Gless narrates.

Tobacco was the first cash export of our colonial era; it virtually funded the American Revolution. But not until the 1880s, when assembly-line manufacturing techniques progressed, was this vice attractive or affordable to more than a privileged few. During World War I, tobacco interests shipped a billion free cigarettes to our soldiers abroad — addicting an entire male generation.

But why were so many people coughing? Why did lung cancer rates skyrocket once cigarettes sales reached critical mass? Scientific evidence soon began to reveal the obvious bottom line. Leading tobacco companies mounted ever-more-heated campaigns of obfuscation, lobbying Congress to keep anti-smoking legislation on the slow path to nowhere. Of course, they’d lose that war eventually, and the government’s big break came in 1994, when boxes of incriminating documents were leaked to a congressional subcommittee.

Shifting into the present tense, the film notes that tobacco giants are placing their marketing emphasis on Third World nations, where government bodies are far less gung-ho on punitive regulation. Coda shows Yul Brynner in a PSA shot just before his 1985 cancer death — admirably, he’d hoped to jolt smokers cold-turkey with a warning “from the grave.”

Evenly paced, “Smoke and Mirrors” is a brisk, terse lesson. Wryly corroborating the experts’ accusations are several kinds of intercut archival footage: more PSAs, seductive pre-’71 TV commercials, glam Golden Age Hollywood screen imagery (most notably of Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall taking iconic inhales), newsreel and broadcast news excerpts. Bad things happen to tar-dosed mice in one hard-to-watch, vintage science-class clip. Both entertaining and sobering, docu is professionally handled in all tech departments.

Smoke and Mirrors: A History of Denial

(DOCU)

Production: A Rosenzweig Co. production, in association with the American Lung Assn. Produced by Torrie Rosenzweig, Elise Pearlstein. Executive producer, Bonnie Rosenzweig. Directed by Torrie Rosenzweig. Screenplay, Rosenzweig, Elise Pearlstein.

Crew: Camera (color, 16mm), Shana Hagan, John Hessler, Paul Young, David Zapatka; editor, Brad Byers; music, Murielle Hamilton; sound recordists, Curtis Choy, Michael Jefferson, Jon Packer, Chris Simmons; research, Rosenzweig, Pearlstein. Reviewed at San Francisco Independent Film Festival, Jan. 11, 2000. Running time: 74 MIN.

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