Well well well. Merry Christmas, everybody!
Just a quick disclaimer before we get started. Personally, I feel that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. For me, the debate was always, Die Hard: great Christmas movie, or greatest Christmas movie? But in recent years, I’ve noticed a backlash. I’ve read quite a few articles this season, which make some very broad, very lazy arguments for Die Hard not being a Christmas movie. Or they make the claim that people like me hold this opinion for the sole purpose of being contrary, or ironic, or cynical. For me, that’s not even remotely close. I, being of sound mind and body, unironically and wholeheartedly consider Die Hard to be an exemplary Christmas movie, which can put me in the Christmas spirit like no other movie can.
And one last disclaimer: it probably didn’t intend to be a Christmas movie, but the final product certainly is. Did you know Let it Snow was actually written during one of the hottest days on record in July? Or that 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, didn’t intend to be a commentary about racial segregation, it was just that the black leading man “simply gave the best audition”? Something can transcend its origin. And Die Hard transcends the fuck out of it.
What makes a Christmas movie?
I agree with one of the criticisms I’ve read: being set at Christmas doesn’t automatically make something a Christmas movie. I’ll be the first to admit that Die Hard 2: Die Harder is absolutely, emphatically, not a Christmas movie. Lethal Weapon, L.A. Confidential, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, are all movies (good ones!) set at Christmas, but are not Christmas movies.
So, what’s Christmas about? In the real world, there’s two aspects to it. We can’t shy away from the fact that it has been severely co-opted by consumerism and capitalism. But, on the other hand, we have the ‘don’t be a dick’ aspect of it. Just generally be kind and full of good cheer, and most importantly: appreciate what you do have, and appreciate the things that matter. All the things that we really do want Christmas to be about. Nice things. And those are the things we want our Christmas tales to be about. I think we can all agree that A Christmas Carol is an excellent example. You have a miserable old git who puts work and profits before all else. A powerful force causes them to confront the error of their ways, and they learn the importance of kindness and compassion. Nice.
So, let’s get into this by taking a look at two movies which are unfailingly accepted as Christmas movies. Home Alone, and It’s A Wonderful Life.
This. Is a bad example of a Christmas movie. Look, I loved it as a kid, but the older I get, the more uncomfortable watching this movie is. In fact, this is a vindictive and malicious movie. Years later, we now call films like this ‘torture porn’. You have a young child, whose mindset has been negatively influenced by the pop-culture that surrounds him. There’s the inventive violence of Looney Tunes, and the dismissive violence of Angels with Filthy Souls (“keep the change, ya filthy animal”). In Kevin McCallister’s world, violence is glorified, and there’s an enjoyment he gets out of increasingly elaborate acts of cruelty. And why does he do it? To protect his home, his property. Now, I understand that someone breaking into your home is a violation, that will prompt a visceral outrage, but the only things at risk in this movie, are material possessions. He has options. Call the cops, kid.
There’s a line in Die Hard, where Hans taunts McClane: “You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne?”. McClane is smart enough to understand the point, but for him, violence in this situation is a necessity. It’s a last resort. For Kevin McCallister, it’s his go-to. Seriously. Kevin McCallister is a real piece of work, and probably grew up to torture animals and murder prostitutes. And at the end of the movie, the bad guys are arrested, and no one learns anything. And, hey, while we’re at it, shoehorning Carol of The Bells into the movie doesn’t make it any more Christmassy. The film is not joyful, unless you get off on violence, and there’s no Christmas spirit here whatsoever, unless I missed that bit in A Christmas Carol about The Ghost of Christmas Vindictiveness. And yet, people consider this a Christmas movie? Jeez Louise.
Okay, let’s talk about It’s a Wonderful Life, which, spoiler alert: is a Christmas movie. Huzzah!
It’s A Wonderful Life
We all know the plot. George gets depressed, plans on killing himself, and an angel comes down from heaven to show him how crappy the world would be without him. He learns his lesson, and comes to appreciate how wonderful his life is. It’s not that different from A Christmas Carol. Okay, this is indeed a Christmas movie.
So, here’s where I get controversial. Bear with me.
To cut a long story short, a shitload of the film revolves around money. Uncle Billy loses track of the money that the bank needs, and the mean-spirited Mr. Potter gets hold of it, leaving George financially fucked ’cause of his obligation to the Building and Loan. He decides to kill himself for the life insurance policy, because he thinks he’s “worth more dead than alive”. Holy crap. The Ultimate Christmas Movie™ has the main character literally put a monetary value on his own life.
And at the end of the movie, the townspeople all chip in some money to bail George out. Don’t get me wrong, the ending is nice, and I understand that the point of this is that they chip in the money because George means a lot to them, but I’m sure there’s a version of It’s A Wonderful Life that could have been made without money saving the day. I mean, blimey, this film has an intensely capitalist streak to it, no?
Anyhoo, where were we? Where does Die Hard fit in to all this?
John McClane is estranged from his wife. As Argyle astutely observes:
“In other words, you thought she wasn’t gonna make it out here and she’d come crawling on back to you, so why bother to pack, right?”
John and Holly’s argument adds to this:
John: “I don’t think you have a clue, as to what my idea of our marriage should be.”
Holly: “I know exactly what your idea of our marriage should be.”
John is a selfish guy, with an old-fashioned view of marriage. A man and his career comes first, the woman’s second. It is only when Hans Gruber comes along and fucks up the party, that John, faced with the prospect of losing his wife, fully realizes what a jackass he’s been, and what’s truly important. Huh. Not that different from A Christmas Carol, or It’s a Wonderful Life.
But wait! We’re only just getting started. How does Hans die? After failing to deck the halls with bowels of Holly, he hangs from a window, gripping Holly’s watch. The Rolex, in fact, which was given to her by Ellis, that smarmy, cokeheaded, weaselly cock of a person. John unhooks the watch, and Hans plunges to his death. Let’s say it out loud together: in It’s A Wonderful Life, a man comes to realize how important he is, and capitalism saves the day. In Die Hard, a man comes to realize how much his estranged wife means to him, and the day is saved by the rejection of capitalism. Yeah. Holy shit.
Fuck You, Capitalism
Let’s keep going. I think we can all agree that capitalism and consumerism embody the worst aspects of Christmas, and that a good Christmas movie shouldn’t glorify that. What happens in Die Hard? As it turns out, the more someone ‘worships false idols’, the more they get punished. Seriously. Let’s take a look at who places importance on money here:
1) Takagi. Yes, the pleasant Mr. Takagi. He seemed a nice enough guy, but here’s the thing. Takagi / The Nakatomi Corporation have $640 million in bearer bonds. Bearer bonds are just that, they belong to whoever has them in their physical possession, no questions asked. As such, they were the tool of choice for tax evasion, dodgy transactions, and money laundering. Interesting. Even more interesting is the fact that Hans knew about the existence of these bearer bonds, to the nearest million dollars. This implies that there are some corporate, insider-trading, backroom-dealing secrets about the Nakatomi corporation, floating out there in the ether. Essentially, Takagi engaged in dodginess to further his profits. And he gets his brains blown out.
2) Ellis. Yes, the smarmy cokehead. He is the very epitome of a ‘corporate douchebag’. As Holly says: “Ellis thinks he was God’s greatest gift”. The man believes his own press, is drunk on his ability to make business deals, and what does he get for it? Yep. Capped.
3 and 4) Agent Johnson, and Special Agent Johnson (no relation).
Agent Johnson: “I figure we take out the terrorists, lose 20, 25% of the hostages. Tops.”
Special Agent Johnson: “I can live with that.”
These guys are quite happy to put a relative value on people’s lives. And what happens to them? A rain of roof explodey helicopter death.
5) Hans. The guy is so hard for the idea of $640 million, that he actually concocted a ridiculous scheme, where, instead of just aggravated robbery, he commits a litany of lesser and greater crimes. He’s also arrogant. After Holly calls him out on being nothing but a common thief, he takes pains to point out: “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite”. His reward? Yeah, dropped off a building.
Everybody got that? Die Hard is absolutely drenched in Judaeo-Christian morality. The sense of right and wrong is absolutely solid. It’s about as moral a tale as you could get! Also worth noting: early on, there’s a scene where McClane is spying on Hans from an elevator shaft. He’s getting stained with axle grease, and he’s using a Sharpie to make a note of the terrorists’ names. Gosh, I wonder if that reminds you of a certain fellow who finds unconventional means of ingress, gets covered in soot, and keeps a list of who’s naughty and who’s nice…
Music and Spirit
What about that indomitable, ineffable ‘Christmas spirit’? The childlike sense of joy and wonder? Well, your mileage may vary (for me it’s a goddamn delight), but try this on for size:
Let’s go back to the disparity between consumerism and the things that matter. Hans Gruber is really just a little boy excited on Christmas eve, staying up all night waiting for Santa to bring him $640 million (we’ve all been there). The first two acts of the movie are focused on this, that build up, that childlike excitement of Christmas eve. At this point, I can’t explain any further without taking a musical digression. Firstly, this is relevant, and secondly, it will greatly increase your appreciation for how well-made Die Hard is.
Believe it or not, Die Hard has one of the most subversive scores in movie history. Now, it should be pretty clear I wouldn’t say something like this if I couldn’t back it up, so… buckle up!
Movies need heroes, right? Let’s take as examples, Superman, Indiana Jones, and Batman. One of the many things they have in common is that they have a musical theme. They swing into action, the music swells up, and the audience experiences that “fuck yeah! kick some ass!” moment. What does John McClane have? Nothing. There’s no ‘Die Hard Overture’ or ‘Für McClane’. In the limo, he has to make do with Christmas in Hollis, by Run-D.M.C. In the Nakatomi lobby, he hums Jingle Bells. The music associated with McClane is in-universe. He makes do with what music is available to him. He doesn’t like Run-D.M.C., so you know what he does? He makes his own music. Which ties in nicely with ‘appreciate the little things, and appreciate what you’ve got’.
Also, he doesn’t need a theme to define him, because he’s not too far removed from our reality. I mean, we’re more like McClane than we are like Superman or Indy or Batman. He gets hurt, and cut and bloodied and beaten and shot. He’s an everyman. But on the flipside to that, check out what happens with Hans and music. Here comes the good bit.
‘Good’? Did I say ‘good’? I meant ‘awesome’. Hans and his crew have a musical theme! It starts as a very simple bass progression from Ode to Joy, and other elements of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. As the film progresses, this is gradually built upon. Unlike the good guy, the bad guys get a theme! So musically, for the first two acts, the implication is that we’re following Hans’ story. It’s about his hopes and aspirations. According to conventional movie music structure, we’re supposed to identify emotionally with Hans! This culminates in one of the most joyful sequences in the whole movie. When Hans finally gets what he wants, when the vault opens and fulfils his heart’s desire, the music kicks in and we’re treated to a magical arrangement of Ode to Joy. Go watch the scene, it is a fucking delight. Furthermore, this is the first time in the movie that there is a conventional use of music (the rest of the non-diegetic music is scored very very tightly to the action on screen. It complements, never imposes itself). But in this moment, it’s like a gift from the heavens, and we can just revel in the satisfaction of the vault opening. As Theo says when the vault opens: “Merry Christmas”.
Woah woah woah. Wait a minute. Back up, Herc! Yeah, I got swept away by Ode to Joy and the vault scene, but this can’t be right! The bad guy can’t triumph!
Right you are. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, part of us knows that this high point of the film can’t be what we were working up towards. What just happened? The score just underlined and emphasized the disparity between consumerism and the things that really matter. Holy fuck, Die Hard just got all highbrow on our asses. After the vault opens, it’s kind of like how you feel about Christmas morning as you get older. You become less and less concerned with what’s under the tree, and more appreciative of who’s gathered around the tree with you. Anyway, where were we? Oh right: glorifying consumerism and material goods is not the way to go.
Hans has been a naughty, greedy little boy. And, in fine Christmas tradition, this is where things start to go wrong for him. McClane saves the hostages, kills his main henchman, and Argyle disrupts the getaway plan. And then John goes to confront Hans. Go watch the scene again. John walks into shot, while sparks fall down from up on high. And behind his head, he’s backlit by a powerful light. It’s halo-like, almost supernatural. And what is the first thing Holly says when she sees John?
A man, transformed, who went through a road of trials, who finds himself in the right time and place to help people. Yes, I just compared McClane to Christ, deal with it. Granted, he can’t forgive Hans, or wash his feet or anything, this is a little bit more Old Testament vengeance, but still. And then of course, instead of repenting, Hans literally clings on to the consumerism Rolex, and pays the price.
At the end of the movie, with the hostages safe, and the bad guys dead, John and Holly walk out of the building together. He’s a better person. Just like George in It’s A Wonderful Life. But you know what? Die Hard goes one better than that. Not only does John learn a lesson, but Al Powell gets to redeem himself. Sergeant Al Powell, who, on one dark night, shot a 13 year old when he mistook his toy gun for a real one. A man who hasn’t drawn his gun since. How does this play out?
Deputy Chief of Police, Dwayne T. Robinson attempts to confront McClane, and completely missing the point (hostages safe, bad guys dead, John & Holly back together), he tells him he has to answer for ‘Ellis’ murder, for one thing. Property damage. Interfering with police business’. First off, Ellis got himself killed, that was his own fault. But property damage and undermining his authority? What a fucking Grinch! And, as if the Christmas spirits were watching, Robinson gets hit with a hubris bomb. Karl returns, to take one last shot at McClane, and just check out the look of ‘out of his depth’ confusion on Robinson’s face. People with priorities like that don’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late. But a person like Al Powell… an everyday hero who does the right thing, these are the people we need. Al gets his moment of redemption, when he finds the courage to pull his gun, and saves John, finally able to forgive himself. Beautiful.
And there’s that glorious swell of music as he does so. A piece of music that perfectly encapsulates this movie. That piece wasn’t by Michael Kamen, the movie composer, it’s actually a James Horner piece they were using while editing the movie. But in true Die Hard fashion, being a real lightning-in-a-bottle film, where everything just fucking worked, they kept it in. Even the filmmaking approach has the Christmas spirit: hey, if it works, keep it. Appreciate what you have to work with, right?
Then Holly punches the reckless and arrogant reporter (an indictment of the media, who put ratings before people and common sense. the kind of people who, in fact, twist our perception of Christmas). And then Let it Snow starts up as they drive off. What’s raining down from the sky? Snow? Nope. Financial/corporate Nakatomi papers. Even driving off into the night as the credits start to roll, Die Hard continues to mock capitalism. After Let it Snow fades out, Ode to Joy, in full magnificent form, takes over. The joy and delight build up, and you walk away from the movie knowing that McClane put love before money, that the greedy and arrogant alike were punished, and that self-hatred was conquered by forgiveness. And really, what’s more Christmas than that?
Yippee-ki-yay, motherfuckers. And a happy new year.