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As debates over tax legislation, immigration, and the #MeToo campaign rage, we are reminded once again that America remains in an acute distemper. The working-class angst that propelled our president into office has not abated and frustrations with the international economic and political order are still front-and-center in public discourse. Many Americans—even liberals—express exasperation with a mainstream media perceived to be more interested in ratings than truth. And there’s only one holiday movie that can possibly account for all of these cultural moods. The 1988 action thriller Die Hard—which has only a tenuous connection to Christmas—is the perfect holiday film for our time.
To recap, the movie begins with John McClane (played by Bruce Willis), a rough, hardscrabble New York City police officer, visiting his estranged wife Holly and their two children in Los Angeles. Holly has left John to take a lucrative job working for a prosperous Japanese firm. McClane surprises Holly in the middle of a luxurious Christmas Eve work dinner party to find that she’s going by her maiden name (she claims that her Japanese managers have little respect for married working women), and that one of her co-workers is actively courting her. McClane’s rising frustration is interrupted by the arrival of 12 predominantly German terrorists and professional thieves, who crash the business party, round up all the employees, and while professing their evil intentions, secretly begin operations to steal $640 million in bearer bonds from a heavily guarded safe on site. Unbeknownst to the criminals, McClane escapes to one of the upper floors of the building.
The rest of the film follows a fairly predictable course, with McClane slowly picking off members of the criminal group while he engages in an increasingly exasperating communication with the LAPD and FBI officers who eventually arrive to take down the terrorists. A study of a few of the most prominent characters from the film will show how this storyline speaks so appropriately to our current topsy-turvy societal moment.
First there is LAPD Sergeant Al Powell, played by Reginald VelJohnson. Powell is an under-appreciated black cop with a pregnant wife. Forced to work on Christmas Eve, he’s prompted to visit the Japanese business headquarters after McClane makes a 911 distress call. After Powell determines that terrorists are holding more than 30 hostages (made clear when McClane drops the body of one of the dead terrorists onto the hood of his police car), he and McClane begin an increasingly friendly back-and-forth on the police radio channel. While Powell’s bumbling superior officer makes a number of foolhardy attempts to confront the terrorists, Powell remains the voice of reason and McClane’s sole supporter on the outside.
Soon the FBI arrives at the scene (whom Powell and McClane derisively call “the feds”), and he and McClane helplessly watch as the agents disastrously misinterpret the hostage situation, resulting in unnecessary loss of life. Eventually Powell admits to McClane that he has been relegated to the dregs of police work—following an incident where he accidentally shot an unarmed kid, he lost the motivation to draw his weapon, even when needed. Yet in an appropriate twist of fate, it is Powell who eventually saves McClane’s life (and that of his wife) by shooting one of the terrorists.
Then there is William Atherton, an LA reporter who recognizes that the hostage situation is his chance for celebrity fame. While investigating the scene, he discovers McClane’s true identity as the husband of one of the hostages, and rushes to the wife’s house. There he presses upon Holly’s Latina housekeeper and nanny to allow him an exclusive interview with the couple’s two school-aged children. The nanny (who is portrayed as a faithful maternal figure) dutifully refuses, only to be threatened with exposure to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)—the predecessor to what we now call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—for her illegal status. She then relents, and the interview with the McClane children broadcast on local television exposes John’s relationship with his wife (the de facto spokeswoman of one of the hostages), providing added leverage to the terrorists seeking to smoke McClane out of hiding.
Finally there’s McClane himself, the epitome of the American working-class Joe who feels increasingly left behind by cultural and economic forces beyond his understanding. His wife effectively navigates her way around the upper-class white-collar world of international business, while he’s the out-of-place blue-collar stiff. Moreover, her decision to use her maiden name for the sake of her Japanese executives is a particular affront to John’s adhesion to traditional family roles. He is also a local boy at heart, with little interest in the greater world, or even greater America. He tells a passenger on his flight into LAX that he prefers to stay in New York working the beat, and mocks the colorful “fruits and nuts” culture of California upon his arrival. He tells his wife’s boss, “I didn’t realize they celebrated Christmas in Japan,” the viewer sensing the cultural tension.
Yet throughout the movie, and in spite of McClane’s own very perceptible character flaws, he finds a way to survive and ultimately defeat the terrorists who threaten not only his wife, but her colleagues and the corporation (he even appears to come to terms with his wife’s successful career). He uses his street smarts and training as a regular New York cop to outwit the sophisticated and heavily armed bad guys, and embodies the American qualities of resourcefulness, courage, and self-sacrifice. In the end, both he and his wife emerge victorious and renew their marital bonds as they drive off into the LA night.
It is for this reason that Die Hard is such a perfect (and oddly prophetic) movie for our particular political moment. Many Americans can relate to McClane’s limitations and his various economic, social, and cultural grievances (if not also Powell’s). What makes McClane’s character and story so compelling is his ability to recognize and overcome his own flaws and persist in the face of what appear to be insurmountable forces. The threat of grave danger helps clarify his true commitments—his calling as a police officer, his country and culture, and his marriage. It is that acceptance of our calling—mixed with that stereotypical, ferocious, working-class toughness, that will preserve what is best about the American ideal. As McClane most memorably declares, “Yippee-ki-yay!”
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.
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