My wacky theory on “Die Hard” (1988)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 16th February, 2013

I’m writing this on February 16, 2013 – A Good Day to Die Hard, the fifth in the Die Hard action movie franchise, has just been released worldwide, and tonight the Prince Charles Cinema in London is holding a bit of a party by playing the first three Die Hard films from original 35mm release prints. (They play this trilogy, and not Die Hard 4.0, aka Live Free or Die Hard, because according to their poster, “it’s not a proper Die Hard film.” Good call – it stinks.)

This is a good day to (totally) recall (hard) the last time the Prince Charles played the Die Hard films. It was June 22, 2012. My girlfriend and I were primed for a night of Hollywood fun, and brought a rucksack full of popcorn, pies, Doritos and sweets to power ourselves through this marathon of some of the slickest, most fun action movies of the 80s and 90s.

I thought I was in the right frame of mind. The print of Die Hard started to run, and as the ironic jingle bells and dramatic strings of the score filled the cinema, I tingled with excitement to see that the film looked great – a bit scratched, with a few jumps, as you’d expect from a 24-year-old copy, but retaining deep blacks and vibrant colours, immeasurably more pleasing than any VHS or DVD versions I’d seen over the years.

But slowly, with horror, I sank in my seat, my mind blown like Neo after taking the red pill in The Matrix. I’d seen an ugly subtext to Die Hard, and though my mind tried to shake it, the content reinforced it. Die Hard, I realised, was a codified device to brainwash the American working man into emotional attachment to corporate dominance over society and the state.

Consider where we are now. The US middle-class is being decimated in favour of a super-rich that hides its money in tax-havens like the Cayman Islands. The US government refuses to punish companies like HSBC, which has been found to be complicit in international money laundering. The Supreme Court protects corporate speech, and in the 2012 presidential election the Republican candidate declared “corporations are people, my friend.” Propaganda outlets like Fox News, which flag-waves for America while being owned by an Australian, and organisations like Americans for Prosperity, which claim to be ‘grass-roots’ while being run by billionaires, have successfully pushed the meme that working-class people should be for big business and against government, and that academics, bureaucrats and ‘liberal media’ who oppose this idea are enemies muddying the water. International business is up, national movements are down, and as John Cusack put it in Grosse Pointe Blank, “the whole idea of governments, nations – it’s all public relations theory at this point.”

20th Century Fox’s Die Hard takes place in a fabulous corporate office building in Los Angeles – the Japanese Nakatomi Corporation’s Nakatomi Plaza. In the 1980s, the Japanese takeover culture was prominent in American business, Japanese electronics consumed the international market and the Land of the Rising Sun’s economic boom seemed at the time so unstoppable that many people anecdotally accepted that the future belonged to the East. The baggage of a proud blue-collar American seeing Die Hard might be weariness at the decline of his own industrial economy at the expense of the Japanese. But Die Hard never makes Nakatomi a villainous or even alien force. John McClane, the cop hero played by Bruce Willis, travels from New York to L.A. to visit his wife, who works at Nakatomi – he rolls his eyes at the eccentricity of “fuckin’ California,” and looks sheepishly amazed when he enters the glistening interior of the Plaza, but ultimately smiles at the Christmas partygoers having fun, and gets a warm, genuine welcome from the company president, Joseph Takagi (played by James Shigeta.)

Instead, the office building is the place that must be protected against a group of ‘terrorists’ led by Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber, and the obstacles in McClane’s way come from the institutions of American society. An idiot deputy police chief, played by Paul Gleason, refuses to listen to McClane’s radio communiqués, and instead sucks up to a couple of federal agents, who want to blaze in with machine guns and at one point shoot at our hero from a helicopter, woo-hooing that it’s “just like Saigon!” A meddling reporter (William Atherton) broadcasts McClane’s identity on air, putting his wife in danger, not to mention harassing his kids at home and threatening their Hispanic nanny with deportation. As the gunmen murder and terrify hostages, we see a puffed-up intellectual on TV say that the hostages may be feeling sympathy for their captors due to “Helsinki Syndrome.” It’s actually called Stockholm Syndrome, but maybe the movie wants us to think that whatever place name you use, it’s all just highfalutin academia guff? Die Hard systematically destroys faith in bureaucratic institutions like the federal government, the police hierarchy, the press and the intelligentsia – the film values McClane’s rugged individualism and the sanctity of the office block over all of these.

If you start to wonder if the terrorists, who claim to be “freedom fighters” fighting for “revolutionary brothers,” might have a real cause, well, the film destroys that notion too. They’re using that cover as a ruse to steal millions of dollars’ worth of bearer bonds hidden in the Nakatomi vault. This is a huge departure from the morally conflicted source material, Roderick Thorp’s novel Nothing Lasts Forever. In that, the terrorists were genuinely political, the company (not Nakatomi, but Klaxon Oil) had been involved in shady deals with a military junta, and the hero’s daughter had been involved with the corruption – so he was protecting his child despite her being guilty. Director John McTiernan says this was changed so he could make a “joyful” movie about terrorists, but it also sends the message that you can write off lefty loons as greedy flim-flam men.

When I’ve expounded my newfound wacky theory on Die Hard, people often point out that McClane doesn’t really care about the office block or the Nakatomi corporation, he cares about his wife. But consider their relationship. Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) is a career woman who has moved to L.A. against McClane’s wishes. She goes by her maiden name of Gennaro. She has disrupted the traditional family unit. In a highly emotional scene near the end of the film, McClane dictates a radio message in which he apologises for any ego he might have had about her choices, says he shouldn’t have been so pig-headed, “should have been more supportive.” Through the character of McClane, Die Hard offers an identification point for the macho American man, but breaks down his ego and emotionally needles him to accept a changing world. The fact that Holly decides to go by the surname of McClane at the end of the film, when the bad guys have been defeated and Atherton’s reporter has been punched in the face, offers the viewer a fantasy of traditional order being restored, if only you can first let it go. Similar, perhaps, to the way the American right-wing promise you can achieve the American Dream, as long as you put your faith in “wealth creators” and let go of unions, the minimum wage, Social Security and the rest of the apparatus of the mid-20th-century liberal consensus?

I may be wrong. I may be reading too much into it. One big problem with this theory is that McClane has no problem using C4 to blow huge holes in the office block we’re supposedly brainwashed to worship. Die Hard remains a superbly crafted, witty and gorgeous action picture. After it was over at the Prince Charles triple-bill, I settled in for Die Hard 2 and enjoyed that on a level of pure sensation, although I’ve gone off Die Hard with a Vengeance, because I find its “you-sho-is-white” banter between Willis and Samuel L. Jackson a lot more tiresome than I did in 1995. But once a subtextual theory has taken root in the mind, it’s hard to pull out. “Welcome to the party, pal!”