Why Are People Still Debating Whether Die Hard Is a Christmas Movie?
Tony Vreski, the German terrorist who became John McClane's first victim
20th Century Fox
What if I unironically told you that violently killing terrorists was the basis of our most pure Christmas movie?
"Most prized among people of this opinion ..." BuzzFeed wrote about Die Hard in 2013, "is the transgressive act of selecting a violent action movie over Home Alone or more classic fare. We get it. You’re too cool for regular Christmas movies."
The writer's consent to such an old-fashioned view of Christmas movies, or as she describes them, "classic fare," is ripped straight from the dusty pages of The Saturday Evening Post , where patriarchal small-town traditionalism was transmitted via the idealistic illustrations of Norman Rockwell. His carefully crafted Americana would influence Frank Capra, who would go on to direct It's a Wonderful Life in 1946. Years later, the film's copyright, as Vanity Fair recently reported, was "neglected." By the 1970s, It's a Wonderful Life would become public domain as the TV networks reran it ad nauseam every Christmas Eve. Over the years, the reruns of the black-and-white classic quietly invented a tradition, much like Christmas itself, where we forever became trapped inside the snow-covered fences of Bedford Falls (the fictional small town in It's a Wonderful Life), singing "Auld Lang Syne" and weeping into the belly of an impoverished child.
This sort of Rockwellian brainwashing, as utopian as it may be, has somehow made Die Hard seem like a cheapened representation of the genre. NME recently looked into this. As of this writing, there's a hashtag on Twitter (#DieHardIsAChristmasMovie) that asks, "Is Die Hard considered a legitimate Christmas movie?" Of all the reviews written about Die Hard, which was released in the summer of 1988, none of those I found describe the film as a "Christmas movie." The New York Times described it as part "buddy movie," part "sentimental tales of a raptured marriage." That same year, the nation fell in love with Scrooged, wherein Bill Murray plays a soulless TV executive who greenlights The Night the Reindeer Died, a TV special in which Santa's village is assaulted by terrorists, as if to say that only callous "scrooges" enjoy action movies on Christmas Eve, instead of, say, A Christmas Carol or It's a Wonderful Life.
To the uninitiated, Die Hard is a xenophobic, Reagan-era blockbuster wherein a cigarette-smoking New York cop, a rebuke to L.A.'s heath-conscious yuppiedom, transports his blue-collar grit into the swanky Nakatomi Corporation's Christmas party. He's there to reclaim his wife, who's begun using her maiden name at her new position. As the narrative unfolds, John McClane becomes a symbol of a very frustrated demographic of American males grown tired of modernity. Nostalgia, after all, is the basis of Christmas and Americana, which are often the same thing. So when he first meets a Japanese executive, McClane casually reads the thought bubble hanging over every hippie-flogging Reaganite's head: "I didn't realize they celebrated Christmas in Japan."
This kind of cheeky xenophobia was, for better or worse, a calling card of '80s cinema. It's part of Die Hard's dark humor. When the German terrorists invade Nakatomi Plaza, they arrive in two vehicles: a van and the blue-collar-rage-inducing gray Mercedes-Benz, an import. For the next two hours, McClane proceeds to kill 13 well-trained German terrorists. If that's how you saw Die Hard, then you missed the fact that this is one of the most carefully sculpted Christmas allegories in history, wrought with symbolism from the moment McClane lights his first cigarette, to when he kills his last terrorist using a Beretta he holsters to his back using festive tape.
Let's begin with names, first, "John," an allusion to "John the Baptist," or more appropriately, "John the Apostle," one of the most loyal apostles of Christ. Loyalty is the driving force behind McClane's instinctual need to reunite with his wife, Holly Gennero, who is named after a decorative Christmas plant. At the end of McClane's struggle to kill the final terrorist, Holly (with a gun being held to her head), finds him looking like a half-dead missionary. "Jesus Christ," she says, as he returns to her like a resurrected Christ, the film's savior, a martyr who nearly dies for the sins of the greedy yuppies at Nakatomi, or the LAPD and FBI, who refuse to listen to his sage advice on how to handle the terrorists. In this regard, Die Hard is an antigovernment film. It is, as Bill O'Reilly would happily say, a Christmas movie, not a holiday movie, and most certainly not a faithless liberal Hollywood interpretation of the genre. Feeling hopelessly trapped, McClane shows us he's a believer, like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life. "I guess that's up to the man upstairs," he says, leaving his fate to God.
There are 13 terrorists trying to force McClane to meet his maker. Yet their leader, Hans Gruber, maintains that he is not a terrorist: "Who said we were terrorists?" he asks a Nakatomi executive. At one point, as he intellectualizes over the model set of Nakatomi's Indonesian development, Gruber espouses his "classical education," and even quotes a Greek philosopher to distance himself from his less worldly partners. So if he is not a terrorist, we then have exactly 12 card-carrying terrorists in Die Hard, like the 12 apostles of Christ, and the "12 Days of Christmas." Like Santa Claus, McClane carries a list, one he writes on his arm with a Sharpie he uses to keep track of terrorists he's either killed or plans to kill.
Die Hard is even littered with ugly Christmas sweaters, including the most infamous in the Christmas canon. When McClane scores his first kill, he decides to send the other terrorists a gruesome greeting card. The dead terrorist is sent down an elevator from the 32nd floor to the lobby, where he appears to his cronies as a bloodied Ken doll with red letters scrawled across his chest: "Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho." This is McClane as a sociopathic Santa, where his chimney is a stainless steel elevator.
There's even a miracle, but rather than 34th Street in Manhattan, it happens in Century City. When Theo the terrorist says it would require a "miracle" to crack through the vault's electromagnetic seal, Hans seeks help from above: "You asked for miracles, Theo ... I give you the FBI." When the bumbling feds turn off 10 blocks of city power, they crack the vault's seal open to reveal the biggest Christmas present in cinematic history: $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds, a moment scored by the orgasmic notes from Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
As the terrorists open their present, McClane engages in one of the genre's other most beloved traditions: Christmas dinner, which is an expired Twinkie he salvages from a construction worker's lunchbox. How deliciously American, and, of course, another reason why Die Hard qualifies as "classic fare."
In terms of thematic connections to films in the Christmas movie canon, there's nothing more classic than a father's need to return home to see his family. This is the basis of Die Hard, as McClane attempts to thwart the terrorists and go home with his wife to their 6-year-old daughter. In Home Alone, the McCalister matriarch has to hitch a ride to Chicago with a Midwestern polka band when she can't get a flight home to son Kevin. In It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey attempts to regain his life with the help of a guardian angel before he can return home. The threat of terrorism in Die Hard unites the McClane family in a paternalistic embrace of family values. In the final scene, Holly addresses herself as "McClane," as opposed to "Gennero," which is her gift to her husband. Thirteen dead terrorists and countless carefully executed C-4 explosions bring them together under the "snowfall" of bearer bonds and printer paper that falls from the burning skyscraper. Vaughn Monroe's "Let It Snow," a song that was written in Hollywood during a heatwave in the summer of 1945, ends the film in classic fashion — as classic as we care to stomach.
Die Hard screens Dec. 24 at the New Beverly. Tickets are sold out but may become available due to refunds and cancellations.
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