Billed as a satirical look at the appeal of tobacco in U.S. society, The Learning Channel's The Last Cigarette does a fair job of pointing out the ironies in America's 20th-century smoking culture.
Pieced together from archival footage by directors Kevin Rafferty and Frank Keraudren, TLC's second feature-length-film effort uses glamorous scenes from golden-age films, old television commercials, industrial films and anti-smoking ads to present a balanced picture of the battle between smokers and nonsmokers.
The film manages to achieve a pretty balanced view despite the fact that it's built around footage from Congress'infamous 1994 congressional tobacco hearings. During those hearings, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and his fellow Democrats sought to hold the executives of all of the major tobacco companies responsible for their roles in pushing the product on American consumers.
Often, the archival footage is used to underscore the anti-smoking side's point of view. For example, Rafferty and Keraudren choose to follow up scenes in which congressmen badger the execs from "big tobacco" about health statistics with footage from 1950s commercials claiming that one specific brand of cigarettes is healthier than another.
Footage of Waxman taking R.J. Reynolds chief James Johnston to task for targeting kids with the "Joe Camel" campaign for Camel cigarettes is also juxtaposed with old film footage of teen-age kids enjoying their first drag.
The film also shows a series of TV spots from the 1950s and 1960s in which airplane crews and passengers enjoy cigarettes as a means of relaxation, juxtaposing that with more recent news footage of a group of flight attendants filing a class-action suit against big tobacco for health problems caused by second-hand smoke they inhaled during the course of their jobs. The two snapshots in time show how much the popular view of smoking has changed in just one generation.
Modern-day perspectives on smoking aren't ignored, either-and not just those of nonsmokers. There's plenty of attention given to the "smokers'-rights" movement in the second half of the film, from an early commercial featuring John Wayne giving the tobacco companies'view that adults have the right to smoke to a TV-news profile of a Minnesota man who founded that state's smokers'-rights coalition.
There are even a few odd wrinkles thrown in, such as footage from an Oklahoma company that offers films of attractive women puffing away for folks with a "smoke fetish."
Even the tobacco executives aren't completely demonized by the filmmakers. Although the executives don't exactly come out smelling like roses due to their hesitancy to admit the health risks that are inherent in smoking, the bullying questioning style of some congressmen on the panel isn't whitewashed by the filmmakers, and it makes big tobacco's "big five" appear somewhat sympathetic.
The film's one drawback is that its lack of a narrative structure makes it hard to sit through a full one hour and 22 minutes of archival footage. Had 20 minutes or so been shaved from this film, it probably would not have been missed.
The Last Cigarette bows Friday, April 21 at 9 p.m. on TLC.