A masterful PR campaign: the links between Hollywood, luxury cars and the arms industry

Business, Comment Analysis||

Luxury cars are inextricably linked with the weapons industry. When James Bond saves the world in his faithful Aston Martin he is glamourising the very industry he is ostensibly trying to defeat. Tasha May reports.

As far as product placement goes, it’s just a thinly veiled reference. But it is ironic.

The central conceit of Christopher Nolan’s latest spy thriller Tenet revolves around the evils of weaponry and “trying to prevent World War III”, as one character puts it. The movie has some showstopping action scenes, chief among them a car chase in which a crash is reversed in time, with shards of glass and a licence plate picking themselves off the bitumen. Amid the spectacular optics of the sequence, it’s easy to miss the name that appears on the car: Saab.

Although better known for making cars, Saab’s weapons manufacturing arm comprises 85% of the company’s total sales. And with $3.2 billion from weapons sales in 2018, Saab ranks 30th in the Top 100 Arms-Producing and Military Services Companies, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

In 1989 Saab Automobile separated from its arms manufacturing branch to become its own company, co-owned and eventually bought out by General Motors. General Motors also has an extensive history in arms manufacturing.

Saab is not alone in the manufacture, currently or previously, of both luxury cars and weapons. Car manufacturers Rolls Royce and Mitsubishi join Saab on SIPRI’s Top 100 Arms-Producing and Military Services Companies, 2018, coming in at number 20 and 25 respectively.

Cultivating a positive image

Cars and weapons form an inextricable nexus, lying as they do at the root of industrial production. Few people know this. This is deliberate: the luxury car industry has put considerable effort into cultivating a positive image – and where better to do that than in Hollywood.

Luxury cars and stopping arms dealers are both clichés of the action film. The best-known franchise for exploiting these tropes is, of course, James Bond. Rolls Royce has featured in Bond movies from such early classics as Goldfinger through to the most recent release Spectre. In honour of the next instalment in the Bond franchise, Aston Martin is offering a limited edition release of the DB5 from Goldfinger, replete with simulated twin front machine guns and tyre slasher.

Aston Martin DB5

Aston Martin DB5: Photo: Aleks Marinkovic (Unsplash)

The familiarity of cliché flicks the brain to auto-pilot. This allows for an escape into fantasy, yet it also switches off our critical faculties. Nolan might have dressed up the film with time travel, but Tenet fits the James Bond mould with its flashy cars and plot revolving around an arms dealer trying to blow up the world.

It is ironic that Nolan’s movie participates in this cliché, given the film flaunts its self-reflexivity: a claim to an awareness of its own artificial workings. The central character is known only as “The Protagonist”. The film plays on the obscurity of its plot with dialogue discussing time travel in a way that deliberately appeases the audience’s own confusion: “Don’t try to understand, just feel it.” Nolan’s self-reflexivity pretends to knowingness of a world outside its own fictive space, but his uncritical use of the arms-dealer/luxury-car cliché betrays Nolan’s lack of awareness.

Glamourising arms industry

So how did action heroes come to save the world driving around in luxury cars, glamourising and promoting the very industry they are ostensibly trying to defeat?

Action movies are expensive. Tenet cost roughly US$200 million; Spectre US$300 million. To finance their grand budgets, Bond films are notorious for branded content. While no exact figure has been disclosed for Spectre not only featuring Rolls Royce on the screen, but actor Daniel Craig announcing the car’s model as it pulls up, it is safe to assume the $48 million worth of cars blown up in production did not come out of the film’s pocket. There are no media releases to indicate whether Saab paid for product placement in Tenet as part of the brand’s comeback. Regardless, while Saab enthusiasts celebrate Tenet as the coming of “Saab 9-5NG’s Afterlife”, Nolan’s film does not evoke a ghost, but a brand name still alive and kicking in its weapon sales.

Action movies rely on a clear demarcation of good guys fighting bad guys, but where does this leave audiences when they leave the cinema? There is an association of luxury cars with “the good guys” in film, when in real life these brands should be synonymous with the weapons manufacturers that they are.

Saab, alongside British Aerospace Engineering (BAE), notoriously bribed its way to secure a $10 billion tender from the African National Congress (ANC) for Jet Fighter Trainers. Former ANC parliamentarian and whistle-blower Andrew Feinstein described it as a move that spent “scarce public resources on this weaponry that we didn’t need, rather than provide lifesaving medication to our own citizens” during the AIDS epidemic.

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Rolls Royce closed a four-year deal with Saudi Arabia to maintain engines powering the Royal Saudi Air Force fleet of Tornado combat aircraft between 2013 and 2017: squarely within the timeframe of the Yemen War. Rolls Royce staff continue to maintain jet engines inside Saudi Arabia, thereby serving to prolong the war in Yemen, currently the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

The public has a morbid fascination with translating the fictional weaponry shown on the big screen into real life. This ignores the reality of how Western arms manufacturers provide the means through which violent regimes around the world maintain their power.

Aston Martin might not have an arms manufacturing branch, but its relationship with weaponry is personified by the DB5’s simulated gadgets, and starts to resemble Brad Whitaker, the arms dealer in the 1987 Bond film The Living Daylights, who lacks military experience beyond recreating battles with toy soldiers.

There is a profound imbalance between the danger of arms dealing represented in movies, with the lack of traction the real-world problem of arms sales garners in real life.

On the silver screen the threat of armaments might be merely a plot device for spectacular stunts, but explosions are happening in real time. While names such as Saab and Rolls Royce conjure up imagery of James Bond, they should remind us of Dr No or Goldfinger instead.

Andy Keough

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