Die Hard isn’t just a Christmas movie. Die Hard is the Christmas movie.
Die Hard is quintessentially a libertarian-conservative American Christmas movie, and that’s what makes it The Christmas movie. Despite what some people say.
Just to get this out of the way first – what’s often said about it is that it wasn’t released at Christmas, so it’s not a Christmas movie. Release date doesn’t mean it’s not a Christmas movie, either. “The Christmas Song” was written in the middle of summer, and no one complains that it’s not a Christmas song. Anyhow, on to the story…
Starting with its hero, John McClane – the story throws an everyman cop out of his element into a situation he doesn’t expect and he, the individual, through his own resilience, perseveres. It’s a celebration of individualism and independence, where one man can and does make a difference. That one man isn’t alone in the world, but his individual actions make the difference. Without him, everyone at the Nakatomi Christmas party would be fodder for murderous thieves.
In contrast to other Christmas movies, John McClane doesn’t need Clarence to take him out of the world and show him what life would be like without him. When John McClane is at his lowest, his friend – a friend whose face he’s never even seen – talks to him and reassures him that his actions matter. John McClane doesn’t have an angel to come save him, but he has his friends who help him.
That friend whose face he’s never seen is important doubly so for that reason. John McClane doesn’t know Sgt. Al Powell of the LA police department. He knows nothing about him to begin with save that Al was a street cop based on his driving. He doesn’t know Al’s race, his religion, or whether his ancestors and McClane’s fought each other in the old country. They don’t judge each other based on some preconditions or some prejudice, there’s no room in their world for that, and there’s no reason in their world for that.
When government gets involved in the situation above the individual level, we see a very libertarian small-government criticism. The 911 operators are blase and uncaring, dismissive of a citizen’s call for help. Even when finally driven to action, they choose to dispatch a lone squad car on his way home – because they are blase and uncaring.
By the time Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson arrives, we really begin to see government involvement and its consequences. Robinson starts by ignoring that Al was the man on the ground, had experience, and was as hands-on as the situation would allow. Al has a grasp, but Robinson dismisses him and has some ham-fisted responses by sending in his teams in “standard two-by-two formation” – decisions that ultimately get good men injured and killed. The further he goes from the individual, the more foolish he gets. When he has men injured or dead at the door and in the car who are protected by John’s quick actions, he’s more concerned about the glass that the individual John McClane blasted all over the grounds.
Local government is shown as foolish, even moreso when it defers to the federal government. When that same local goverment listens to the individual or starts to think about its role, it becomes more responsive and effective.
The federal government response is one you’d expect from Washington, DC. It’s a one-size fits-all approach for an A7 scenario, running the universal playbook step-by-step, and it’s an even more ham-fisted and foolish one than the local government uses.
But Agent Johnson does add that “We’ll try to let you know when we commandeer your men,” in perfect parody of the uncaring fedgov taking over.
In defense of the realism of Agents Johnson and Johnson, Die Hard was made prior to the siege in Waco, where the fedgov proved itself more incompetent, not less.
Over objections of local government in the form of Deputy Chief Dwayne T. Robinson – who sucks up to the FBI heavily at first, but begins to question the wisdom of it later (as he realizes he could be held accountable, and thinks he should call the mayor) – and private citizens who object, the feds kill power to an entire grid. Federal, local, and business authorities spend the whole argument ignoring Walt the technician who could cut power locally.
Walt is the individual, showcased again as the only competent one there, ignored by his company boss, the local authorities and the federal authorities. Over his own objections and explaining that he can get the same result with no harm, he is threatened by Agent Johnson, and ends up being forced to shut down a power grid that inconveniences and harms local families on Christmas Eve, and plays right into the hands of the terrorist thieves.
Further from the consequences, as the FBI prepares its doublecross, Agent Johnson (no, the other one) comments that they’ll lose 20-25% of the hostages tops, and the other says he can live with that. American lives he and his partner (no relation) are sworn to protect are ultimately expendible to him in his mission. When Agent Johnson is rolling in with helicopter gunships, he whoops “Just like Saigon, eh, Slick?” – he’s become the embodiment of reckless militarization of police forces and the consequence-free actions the federal government would take against its own citizens while remaining assured of its own unaccountability.
While John McClane is on the roof and trying to move a terrified group of citizens back down and away from the bomb-laden roof of the building, it’s Johnson who’s gleefully commanding shooting and sniping at McClane, without having analyzed what the situation was.
Hans Gruber and his gang as the bad guys are “the world”. They are mostly Europeans and vaguely foreign characters, and Theo, of course, who is an amoral professional with a charming personality.
Hans and his crew, when silent, aren’t fully understood by anyone but John and Al. John and Al understand in a direct, visceral way – the terrorist thieves are bad guys. They show a traditionalist conservative or libertarian response to a direct threat – handle the threat. They don’t need to pontificate about it – they know the bad guys are what they are, and somebody’s got to stop them. There’s no introspection or “are we really the terrorists who brought this on ourselves?” There’s not a thought to “Helsinki Syndrome” – which is mocked by the film itself.
“The world” is recognized for what it is – they aren’t ideologues – they’re thieves willing to use any tactics – “the world” has its own motivations, self-interested motivations, while naiive American govt. policies believe in the babble (Deputy Wayne Robinson) or ignore it completely and don’t even try to understand the motivations (FBI guys) that ultimately lead to failures by government at varying levels.
Hans, when he communicates their “demands”, play the slow-thinking local authorities for suckers, to such a degree that even his right hand man is thrown for a loop.
John and Al see through it as a ruse.
Dwayne is duped, but baffled – again because he doesn’t listen to his own people on the ground.
The FBI simply ignores it, and fits it into their own plans. They don’t even bother to wonder why such bizarre requests would be made. Their sledgehammer-instead-of-a-flyswatter approach doesn’t even factor in that the “terrorists” are stalling, or why they were stalling. It’s just an A7 scenario, and “we’ll take it from here”.
On a whole host of topics, the movie subltly demonstrates a varying host of both libertarian and conservative beliefs.
On social issues of race or class, none are important – individual character is what matters. Even just stripping away the action and drama of the story and looking at the characters shows people who are success stories due to their own hard work.
Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi, better known as Joe, is the man at Nakatomi, but he’s no rich robber baron or parody of zaibatsu business. He’s an immigrant who worked his way up from humble beginnings, including spending young childhood years in the Manzanar internment camp, and he’s become a wealthy and powerful businessman, respected and loved by his employees.
On the other side of the spectrum is Argyle, who’s worked his way up from taxi driver to limo driver, and who’s personable and engaging with people he works with and ultimately for. He helps John out with a plan to get back together with his wife, and agrees to help John find someplace to stay if things don’t work out. He’s good people, showing character and initiative that doubtless was part of what got him moved up the socioeconomic and status ladder from taxi driver to limo driver.
On gun control, the movie recognizes the bad guys will always be armed. The terrorist thieves have rocket launchers – things that are already banned. How did they get them? Irrelevant – they’re criminals and criminals break laws.
On right to life, even Hans recognizes that a pregnant woman should be treated kindly. He’s already calculated to kill everyone there as part of his scheme, yet he neither dismisses her nor her unborn child and their value to the Nakatomi community. He does value them both less than the $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds in the vault. But he recognizes the woman and unborn child as being respected by the community and responds to it for the value that Holly and the Nakatomi crowd place on her and her baby.
On smoking, characters smoke because they choose to – and they state they are aware of the dangers. “These are very bad for you.” It’s an individual decision, totally aware of the risks.
Abuse of hard drugs is shown to be something that’s ultimately self-destructive as it’s detrimental to the individual and the individual’s judgement. There’s not a legal or moralizing argument against it, but more observation of the results of drug abuse and the poor decision making and foolish behaviors that drug abuse leads to. Like the douchey thinking that just because you’re a corporate hot-shot, you can go and negotiate your way out of a situation with men who use guns, not fountain pens.
The hubris that comes with trying to sleaze and bullshit one’s way through real-world threats is shown very vividly. While Joe Takagi tried to negotiate as a civilized man with an enemy that feigned civilized manners and ultimately lost his life for it, Ellis douchily walks into a situation already knowing what the stakes are. Ellis is the mush-brained slow-learner egocentric who thinks there’s a way to talk through problems that can only be solved by force. He is the embodiment of negotiations with hostile international powers who will act to their own ends and don’t care what anyone talks at them. He is as effective as the UN – a force only dangerous to those who are allied with it – because it empowers hostile forces by its own simultaneously naiive approach and arrogant sense of self-importance.
The sensationalist, short-attention-span media, in the character of Richard “Dick” Thornburg, is shown to be irresponsible and reckless, as well as dangerous. He endangers McClane’s children for nothing more than a scoop, but does also briefly touch on the hypocrisy and foolishness of hiring illegal aliens when he threatens Paulina with the INS. We not only see Thornburg as the kind of newsman the NYT would hire when they want to show weaknesses in US armor to enemy forces in combat, but also as the kind of self-absorbed ass we expect to see from the news, where the story is always about him. The rest of the media and their wholly wrong assessment the Nakatomi situation has already been covered above.
Die Hard 2, would of course give us the contrast of the moral journalist in Samantha Coleman with WNTW news. But I’ll save any further analysis on Die Hard 2 for next year.
An a much deeper level, one could discuss how John McClane running through the glass and emerging with bloodied feet could signify the stigmata, or running on glass the miracles of walking on water, but those would all be a stretch, to say the least. There are plenty of religious connections that could be made in subtle fashion, and really most would be more valid than celebrations of Christmas involving a fat guy in a red suit, flying big game animals, and toymakers from Lothlorien who live in the extreme arctic.
You could have another conversation as to the relative values and virtues of other Christmas movies, and the traditions they have (they aren’t bad movies, after all… but they aren’t Die Hard).
While some people are adamant that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie… it really doesn’t matter. Like Crow T. Robot famously said during the initial singing of Patrick Swayze Christmas – “you keep Christmas in your way and let me keep it in mine.”
As an addendum, there’s also a criticism about Nakatomi having a Christmas party on Christmas Eve saying that they’re a horrible company for it.
This is nonsense. Joe Takagi and the Nakatomi corporation recognize the dedication of their employees and treat them like family. They know the amount of work that has been put in to their projects, and they offer a Christmas party for those working long distances from home – like Holly, who had to leave New York to work in LA. Unlike others in the Nakatomi family, she has her own family that she moved – but she’s there at the party because she wants to support her fellow workers. She’s not going to be there all night – as she’s already planned to take her husband home to see their children, and Argyle was expecting to be spending Christmas driving John home… and maybe head to Vegas at some point.