Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 16 July 2007
Source MGM/UA Home Video VHS
Twenty-three years before Christopher Buckley skewered the tobacco industry with Thank You For Smoking, TV gastronome Norman Lear employed the fictional town of Eagle Rock, Iowa, to satirize the nation’s blind addiction to cigarettes. Cold Turkey, his first foray into filmmaking, would also be his only; now 84 years old, the maverick producer has spent much of the last decade promoting liberal causes and consulting on television shows like “South Park,” while his lone movie stands as a seamless demonstration of insightful social humor.
Hoping to curb their reputation as an industry based around greed and indifference, Valiant Tobacco hires renowned Madison Avenue consultant Merwin Wren to craft an ostentatious publicity campaign—an offer of twenty-five million dollars to any town that will completely give up cigarettes for one month. No town, they’re told, will be willing to risk so much for such a comparatively small amount of money and the risk of widespread humiliation and failure.
On the brink of evaporation, Eagle Rock is a fading all-American sanctuary. The population: 4006. At its center are a slew of Rockwellian churches, and as the film opens, the Sunday services have gotten under way. Taking his place before the congregation is Reverend Clayton Brooks, a tall man with slicked salt-and-pepper hair; his voice resonates with rural familiarity, though his words of encouragement and optimism bore the worshippers to sleep. Later, the grace and tranquility of his morning jog are subsumed by the thick, sickly coughs of the addicted early-risers.
Much like the neighborhoods in Lear’s “Maude” and “All in the Family,” Eagle Rock, Iowa, is a well-tailored representation of American society. There are the patriotic many who believe unquestioningly in Eagle Rock, no matter its collective health or receding status; even as their fight against cigarettes garners national attention, and Eagle Rock is overtaken by tourists (and the promise of increased commerce), their trust remains inexorably with Brooks. There are also opportunists—those who see the large sum and decide that, rather than funding the town’s future, twenty-five million dollars would better serve their own selfish needs. And then there’s the youth of Eagle Rock—a small but noticeable group of teenagers who, halfway through Brooks’ campaign, voice their opposition to his work in the form of a picket-song protest in the town square. “Has your whole generation lost its sense of civic duty?” he asks them, but they only respond with silence. (Slyly, the following scene is of older citizens in church, smiling and acting involved for television cameras.)
Cold Turkey, released in 1971 as American involvement in Vietnam was on the decline, also serves effortlessly as a metaphor for the national condition. Brooks is the seemingly well-intentioned citizen who becomes overwhelmed by his sudden influence: He sees his town engulfed by materialism and paranoia, as stores are converted into makeshift shops for cheap knickknacks and every tourist’s automobile is thoroughly inspected, and yet he feels contented, even proud—this is his one chance to succeed, to leave Eagle Rock for a larger congregation in Dearborn, Michigan. At the same time, the town teenagers serve as anti-war protesters, flower children, hippies, etc. And then there’s the Christopher Mott Society, a small gathering of twenty-some Eagle Rock citizens who serve as a thin metaphor for the John Birch Society, a right-wing American organization. Lear, who co-wrote and directed the film, even includes an appearance by Richard Nixon: As the citizen of Eagle Rock celebrate their 12:01 AM victory, the Commander and Chief glides through the crowd, flanked by a loop of Secret Service men, and takes the stage; hidden behind the obstructive heads of onlookers, we never see his face, and his message of economic hope for Eagle Rock is delivered on a Goodyear Blimp. The crowd cheers, and the scene fades.
While Lear’s film may be known today for its fanciful dark tones — the infamous dog-kicking scene, Eagle Rock’s substitution of sex for smoking — much of Cold Turkey’s clowning brilliance comes from its cast, populated by the era’s best comedic actors and actresses: Jean Stapleton, Bob Newhart, Edward Everett Horton, Bob Eliot and Ray Goulding. Dick Van Dyke brings the wholesome nature of past roles, most notably Dick Petrie, to his performance of Brooks, only he uses them as a façade for the character; Brooks is manipulative, calculating, and self-interested, using the church and his own influential position to gather support, gradually and blatantly becoming everything Petrie wasn’t. Judith Lowry is Odie Truman, an angry old woman who insists, rather correctly, that it’s all “a big bullshit.” And Tom Poston’s Stopworth, the unrequited lush of Eagle Rock, delivers an uproariously slurred monologue about the anatomy of addiction when, identified by Brooks as a weak-willed smoker, he is threatened with violence:
The thing is, I can’t stop drinking, see? That’s just the thing about me—I can’t stop drinking. Do you accept that, don’t you? No matter what happens when you leave here, I will always drink… Now, alright, if you can understand that, you can also understand that my drinking is directly connected to my smoking. No, wait, when I say directly, I mean there’s a thing, a physical thing, that is directly connected from my liquor buds to the smoke pouch in my lungs. And if you want me to quit smoking, your gonna have to cut—I mean, your gonna have to physically cut that thing, and when you do, my head’s gonna fall off. Do you understand, revermend? The booze bone is connected to the smoke bone, and the smoke bone is connected to the head bone, and that’s the word of the Lord.
Cold Turkey begins with a tracking shot—a scruffy dog walking down the gravel road leading into town. To the left and right are various signs — Kit Kat Klub, Reichardt’s Men’s Furnishings — all stamped with marks of bankruptcy. Playing over the scene is Randy Newman singing “He Gives Us All His Love,” a somber celebration of God’s utmost gift. The same song reappears over the film’s closing, when the true irony — and tragedy — of Eagle Rock’s triumph is revealed: A large government factory breaking the flat Midwestern landscape like an ugly metal tumor, topped off by four polluting smokestacks—four large cigarettes jutting high into the air.