Die Hard: Christmas or Political Movie?

10 mins read

In 1988 while Bruce Willis was still enjoying his success from the blockbuster series “Moonlighting,” he also starred in the movie “Die Hard.” To this day, film critics and fans are still debating whether or not “Die Hard” should be classified as a Christmas movie or remain in the action/thriller genre. 

I am among those who say it is a Christmas film for adults.

But I see something else in it, some 35 years after its making, that speaks to both the political and emotional sentiments of the Trump era.

As the movie opens, New Yorker John McClane (Bruce Willis) gets off his Los Angeles bound plane carrying Christmas gifts for his children. Over the loudspeaker, a flight attendant wishes all the passengers a “very merry Christmas,” and the sound of sleigh bells can be heard.

Not only does this establish “Die Hard” as a Christmas movie, but in the next scene, there is a Christmas tree at the office party he will be attending. When McClane’s estranged wife, Holly Gennero (Bonnie Bedelia) fends off the advances of her loutish co-worker, Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner), she does so by telling him that it’s Christmas Eve, a time for “family, stockings, roasted chestnuts, Rudolph and Frosty; does any of this ring a bell?”

If a movie takes place on Christmas Eve, it’s definitely a Christmas movie, whether what comes next is happy or sad, wholesome or full of murder and mayhem.

The movie touches on many themes that impact political thinking including income and social inequality, women and their value in the workplace, police shootings, glorification of gun culture, and more.

For its time, “Die Hard” had a racially diverse cast that included Black and Asian actors in key roles, along with Hispanic and Indigenous actors in supporting roles.

Gennero’s boss, Joseph Takagi (James Shigeta), is an immigrant whose family had been interred in a Japanese encampment during World War II but went on to study at UCLA, Stanford and Harvard before becoming vice chairman of the international Japanese Nakatomi Corporation. 

Black police Sergeant Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson) is dispatched to check out suspicious activity at the Nakatomi Plaza on his way home from his desk shift. Powell and McClane, both street-wise and contemptuous of the workplace politics in their lives, develop a special kinship via radio transmissions during the course of the movie. The cast also includes Native American Marshall Dancing Elk Lucas in an uncredited role as a fireman.

Among the bad guys, there is a Black computer whiz named Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) who is charged with hacking the seven locks that will open the company’s sophisticated bank vault which contains today’s equivalent of $1.38 billion in untraceable bearer bonds. 

Before the “terrorist” thieves arrive on the scene, some modest discussion of women in the workplace ensues. McClane is miffed when he enters the Nakatomi building and discovers his wife’s maiden name, Gennero, listed on the directory. 

McClane, clearly a “blue-collar” character, is annoyed that his wife’s career has skyrocketed and her lifestyle has become more upscale, including a housekeeper and a Rolex watch given to her as a Christmas “bonus.” She has a plush office and is second-in-command in the office hierarchy — certainly not the Trumpian vision of a suburban housewife. McClane is not happy with this role reversal in their relationship.

And Ellis, who represents ‘80s corporate greed, clearly has designs on both Gennero and her position in the organizational framework. He is a fast-living, coke-snorting, slick-talking salesman who thinks any story he makes up will be gobbled whole by anyone who listens. (Sound at all familiar to a current president we know?) Ellis’s gift for gab will eventually get him killed by the terrorist leader, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

Gruber — with his GQ looks and John Phillips suit — later claims to be from a radical political group and demands the release of jailed political figures all over Europe in exchange for his Nakatomi employee hostages. Gruber is using political cover to hide an agenda that is all about money. Where have we seen that happen lately?

But, of course, this movie is mostly about the glorification of violence with Christmas as a backdrop.  

It is every Second Amendment fan’s fantasy that a good guy with a gun can take on a dozen or so terrorists equipped with military-style firepower. McClane is the lone cowboy in a sea of villains who come to rescue the day and save the besieged town using his ever-trusty gun. Gruber even asks him if he is “. . . just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he is John Wayne?”

How well that fits with today’s pipe dream that a heavily armed mass shooter can be stopped if only teachers or people sitting in movie theater seats or on church pews just pull out their own guns and fire back.

In fact, McClane has so much faith in the power of a gun that he wedges one of the bad guys’ automatic weapons in an elevator shaft opening and dangles his 180-or-so pound body by the gun strap to swing himself to an opening on another floor. 

Sure he can do that. In the movie.

Of course, the LAPD and the FBI come equally militarized to the party but do not fare as well as McClane does with his lone man hero antics. SWAT team members are mowed down by Gruber’s group, their armor-plated Humvee bursting into a ball of fire, and FBI agents are blown up in their helicopter after bickering on the ground with police over who has “control” of the scene.

The FBI threatens a telephone crewman with the loss of his job if he doesn’t shut down the power grid, which releases the magnetics of the vault’s final lock and gives the thieves the access they wanted the bearer bonds. Their politics were made up to cover their greed.

A few other political/cultural reference points: 

  • Takagi’s internment harks back to dark times in our political history (and also is similar to the plight of the immigrant children and their families we caged, then separated, just a few years ago).
  • Before Takagi is killed, he and Gruber discuss a model of an Indonesian Nakatomi project and Takagi, mistakenly thinking Gruber and his thugs are legitimate political radicals, talks about how environmentally sound the project will be.
  • The media is portrayed as shameless. An unscrupulous reporter (William Atherton) goes to the McClane home to exploit the children in an on-camera “exclusive” appearance while their parents are fighting for their lives against Gruber’s group. He does this by threatening to have the Hispanic housekeeper deported. (Threatening people with loss of employment based on their immigration status — sound Stephen Miller familiar?)
  • Sergeant Al reveals to McClane that he is no longer a beat cop because he shot and killed a 13-year-old he thought was armed but who was holding a toy gun (which sadly foretells Tamir Rice’s muder). Al vowed to never shoot his gun again; yet at the end of the movie, he saves McClane by putting four bullets squarely into the menacing character played by Alexander Godunov, thus somehow “redeeming” his policeman’s honor and cementing the “good guy with a gun” narrative.

(Un)fortunately, this isn’t where the movie ends. After Gennero slugs the offensive reporter in the nose for putting her children on live TV, she and her wounded husband hop into their waiting limo and are driven, kissing into the night, as Vaughn Monroe sings “Let It Snow.” 

If this movie doesn’t scream “Christmas” in Donald Trump’s America, I can’t think of another movie that could.

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