The Greatest Conservative Films: Die Hard (1988)
“Ladies and gentlemen…? Ladies and gentlemen: Due to the Nakatomi Corporation’s legacy of greed around the globe, they’re about to be taught a lesson in the real use of power. You will be witnesses.”
It’s a $1,000,000 question, dividing movie fans every year: Does Die Hard really “count” as an honest-to-goodness “Christmas movie”?
Honestly, there are good arguments on both sides. On the one hand: “Of course it does! It’s set around Christmastime, there’s Christmas music playing on a regular basis, it revolves around a Christmas party, we hear jingle bell sound effects…and lest we forget:
On the other hand: “Uh…no, not really. All the ‘Christmas’ stuff is incidental—would the movie’s storyline really be any different if it were, say, a Halloween party?”
Where do I stand? Well…I honestly see both sides, but my gut goes with: “Y’know, all the Christmas stuff is part of the movie’s charm.” Still, just to err on the side of caution, I’m doing Die Hard this week—and for Christmas…I’ll tackle a film universally acknowledged as a “true” Christmas movie. Stay tuned!
In the meantime, SPOILER ALERT! And LANGUAGE: It is an R-rated action flick….
WHY IT’S A CONSERVATIVE FILM:
The ‘80s and early ‘90s saw a surge in a special kind of action film—the super-fun, wild-and-crazy flicks without any apparent depth, just super-brawny tough guys taking on clear-cut villains, always ready with a quotable line or two. “I’m all outta bubblegum”—that sorta thing. Arnold Schwarzenegger—Sylvester Stallone—Mel Gibson—Kurt Russell…and eventually Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal. And in the world of film studies, these wild-&-crazy action flicks have a name, courtesy of one Susan Jeffords: “hard body”—for obvious reasons.
Basically, Jeffords posited that the whole thematic point of this action trend was a culture reflection of the Reagan revolution. For example, “Peace Through Strength”: Make yourself tough and strong enough so that most would-be enemies wouldn’t dare try and cross you…but if someone ever does, you know for a fact you’ll be ready for them.
There’s also the general idea of rugged individualism—the lone wolf hero standing tall against the evil forces. It’s the great Bill Whittle’s formula (“A man alone, with a gun”, etc.), distilled to its bare essence. “Hard body” action films embrace it, and play it up for all its worth—and with barely any moral qualms about doing what’s necessary.
To be sure, a lot of these movies have crooked businessmen, or conspiracies in the top brass or our intelligence agencies, as the enemy. But not all of them. Many of them have the hero fighting third-world dictators, or terrorists…
Or thieves posing as terrorists.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Another big theme Jeffords and Co. often invoke about “hard body” flicks concerns male empowerment. Essentially: the ‘70s saw the rise of action films for black guys and women in general—both in the “exploitation” corner of the movie industry. We’ve already talked about Blaxploitation, way back when I looked at Shaft for this series. As for the women-centric action flicks…mind you, being exploitation films, many of them were just plain stupid. Quite a few of them played up the sex appeal of the heroines. Still, Pam Grier in particular paved the way for Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton, all the way to Uma Thurman, Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, and Charlize Theron.
Cue the ‘80s, the theorists go…where white guys go, “Hey, when’s our turn?” Thus, the grand tradition of exploitation cinema’s channeled for “white guy” sensibilities, and so on.
Well…not that simple. Films of the “hard body” category could be and many times were interracial—48 Hours and the Lethal Weapon franchise come to mind. Still…one could make the case for male empowerment, here.
For Die Hard, NYPD cop John McClane’s facing no small anxiety about his worth as the man of the house. His wife’s career with the Nakatomi Corporation’s taken her to L.A.—and their living in different cities puts a strain on their relationship.
Holly’s even using her maiden name in the records—apparently because of Japanese company policy…or something. And her generous offer to him, when he visits for Christmas, is to let him use…the guest room of her house. Not, y’know…the master bedroom, with her.
This all just feeds John’s angst even more. He’s got to find a way to prove his worth as a man—to himself, and to Holly.
Ironically, opportunity knocks—in the…weirdest way.
Thieves Posing As Communists:
Yep…same old story since Marx and Engels. Charming con men spouting “revolutionary” rhetoric in public…when in reality, they’re just picking the pockets of anyone they can swindle.
Such is Hans Gruber and Co. See the page quote. And also note his B.S. demands about “revolutionary brothers and sisters”. In reality, he may have been a former member of a radical organization, but he’s long left it for high-reward thievery.
In other words, this Red’s decided to come clean. He’s a thief, and he embraces it. Being an “idealist” Communist revolutionary’s just a cover—and he’s smart enough to admit it to himself.
Joe Takagi, high-ranking exec of the Nakatomi corporation, is one of the first victims of Hans Gruber’s evil plan. And what we see of him, we like him—charismatic, professional, noble…and in his own way, brave. He doesn’t give in to Hans’s demands, telling him, “You’ll just have to kill me.”
Likeable, honorable, and courageous. And a man of big business. And for all the Leftist analysis that the film’s supposed to convey anxieties about Japanese “incursions” into American capitalist turf…or something…the truth is, Takagi’s something of a hero, refusing to give Hans any kind of shortcut. He’s a man to be admired.
To boot, Hans’s reading of Takagi’s history notes that the man spent time in one of the WWII internment camps—only to rise up the ranks of education and business, to make something of his life.
Further, during the confrontation between Gruber and Takagi, the subject briefly turns to the Nakatomi project in Indonesia. Takagi insists that the corporation intends to develop the region, “not exploit it.” Hans notes he believes him—he read the article in Forbes.
As for Ellis, the smooth-talking, slimy-acting negotiator…well, though he does give Hans the real identity of McClane, he’s smart enough not to give up Holly, insisting instead that he’s the guy who invited John to the party.
The Dark Side Of The Press:
Alas, Richard Thornburg, local news station reporter, isn’t so smart. In fact, in his eagerness to break any story he can, he’s directly responsible for exposing Holly’s identity—putting her in mortal danger. He even forces himself into Holly’s house to get the kids on TV.
Amid all the glorification of the press in movies lately, it’s always rewarding to see reminders of just how crummy they can be, at their worst. There are good guys, and there are bad guys. For every Lois Lane, there’s at least five or six Richard Thornburgs…and frankly, that’s being generous, especially nowadays.
Kudos to Donald Trump and Sarah Huckabee Sanders for pulling a Holly McClane. Symbolically, of course.
Reconciling The Family:
Lest people think Conservatives just want women to Stay In The Kitchen…John and Holly’s reconciliation does not involve her giving up her career with the Nakatomi Corporation (as she seems to fear in their verbal clash early on). Again, Takagi (May He Rest In Peace) was a good guy, and the movie clearly has nothing against the company.
Here’s an instance where the sequel helps clarify things a bit: in Die Hard 2: Die Harder, Holly’s still with the Nakatomi Corporation…and John’s transferred to the LAPD. The two are as deeply in love as ever in that film. (Yes, the third movie has them estranged again, and it just goes downhill from there…for some reason. That’s all long in the future, though. Bear with me.)
Even in this film, there’s nothing to cause us to frown at Holly being a Strong Woman. We’re meant to admire her as she constantly stands up to Hans, successfully negotiating for the well-being of the others. She’s a worthy gal for John—she’s his equal. For all the strain between them, we like her.
And of course, she punches out Thornburg for good measure. Cue the applause from the audience.
(All this, of course, makes everything that happens between them after Die Hard 2 all the more difficult to accept. Maybe that’s why she’s always off-screen after that—to cover up how unbelievable it is.)
For Bonus Points:
Once again, the whole Leftist mindset that “Conservatives are racists!” is proven to be nonsense. The two characters that prove the most helpful to McClane—limo driver Argyle and disenchanted police sergeant Al Powell—are both…black. And the latter has the honor of dispatching the final bad guy in the film.
And the best part: neither of them die.
Hans makes sure to mock and deride McClane for his “cowboy” mentality, even dropping the oh-so-classic “You Americans” spiel. He scoffs at the John Wayne style of heroism…
And of course, John McClane proves just how valuable that mentality really is, in fighting for what’s right.
WHY IT’S A GREAT FILM:
“Die Hard on a plane!”—“Die Hard on a train!”—“Die Hard on a battleship!”—“Die Hard IN SPACE!!!” You get the idea. The original Die Hard set the standard for one of the classic action-thriller storylines: A group of baddies take control of an easily-isolated location, threatening the innocents within…and the only thing they overlooked is one lone guy who doesn’t particularly feel like he’s supposed to be there.
Far too often, mind you, the imitators miss the entire point of what made the original Die Hard so appealing: the inherent vulnerability of the hero in this situation.
Critic Joel Siegel summed up Die Hard’s greatness like so: “This action film is different. Willis is a real guy, not a comic book hero.” Exactly. John McClane can be hurt—and that makes it thrilling. He’s not invincible, and therefore he’s not boring. Because he’s likable, we care about him. And because he’s capable of feeling pain, we’re worried about him.
The tension is real. The thrill is real. While the classic ‘80s “hard body” action flick is admittedly fun, and enjoyable…in the end, are most of them—even the other classics—really that thrilling? Do ever once actually worry for the life of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme? Certainly never for Steven Segal—and to be blunt, despite Under Siege being “Die Hard on a battleship”…to me, it’s boring as heck.
To their credit, the better “hard-body” flicks make sure to go the Man of Steel route and give these supermen emotional vulnerability, usually by putting people they care about, who can be hurt, in danger—see Commando, where Ahnold’s arc involves saving his daughter.
For Die Hard, McClane’s emotional vulnerability centers on the danger to his wife. And meanwhile, awesome as he is…he himself can be hurt.
The Mastery Of Suspense:
We’re clued in to the above fact nearly from the moment of the baddies storming in. The first thing McClane does is run to safety, to catch his breath and think. And he’s barefoot—remaining that way for most of the film, grumbling about how none of the shoes of the villains he kills manage to fit!
His cool, clever tricks must be improvised on the fly. And so we admire him, but never once do we think for a moment he’s invincible.
Perhaps the best moment of this: a sequence of purebred Hitchcock-ian suspense. As the Master himself put it, the key to injecting a scene with cinematic tension is to let the audience in on the ever-increasing imminent danger to the character in question.
In this case…John McClane’s using the strap of an automatic rifle as a rope, to lower him down an elevator shaft. And as he descends…the camera keeps cutting up to the top of his makeshift rope…letting us in on the fact that THE STRAP IS ABOUT TO BREAK!!!
Of course, intellectually we’d know, “Hey, McClane’s the hero—and it’s too early in the movie anyway; he can’t die.” But leaving aside our getting swept up in the tension of the moment, we also know that he’s capable of getting hurt—and feeling pain. So even though he won’t die…if he doesn’t get to the next level in time, brother it’s really gonna smart for poor John!
BOOM! …He grabs ahold of the lower level, just in the nick of time! …But you just know it’s gotta be a bad strain on his poor arms!
Bruce Willis as John McClane:
The role that forever defined Bruce Willis as an action superstar. And though in his later years we’d see him in more “invincible” roles…it’s here that his classic persona comes forth: the tough guy who’s not exactly eager for action—tiredly snarky about his situation, to cope with just how stressful the situation can be.
Things keep frustrating him—like that classic moment where McClane, realizing he’s got to crawl through a tight, dusty, cobweb-infested air duct…famously grumbles, “Come out to the coast! We’ll get together! Have a few laughs…!”
He’s not a super-muscle-man. He doesn’t have six-pack abs—in fact, he’s arguably got a bit of a gut. But he rises to the occasion—using his grit and his wit to rise to the occasion.
And a dark joke or two, to underline just what he thinks of these idiots he’s gotta take on.
Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber:
Classy, cultured, charismatic…menacing. Rickman’s performance—actually his first ever in motion pictures—has become every bit as iconic as Willis’s.
“Nice suit. John Phillips, London. I have two, myself. Rumor has it Arafat buys his there!”
Equipped with his own sly sense of humor, Rickman’s Hans forms a priceless over-the-radio chemistry with John McClane. And the first time they meet face-to-face, we revel in their mutual cleverness. Hans puts on a “panicky hostage” act with a very convincing American accent. (Apparently, that’s precisely why the scene’s in the movie—Rickman was so good at accents, the filmmakers felt it was too good not to put in!) And McClane really seems to fall for it…but the alertness in his eyes clues us in that his mind’s at work, too—and he gives Hans a gun which turns out to be unloaded, just to troll him into exposing himself.
They’re worthy opponents—and by the end, they can share a laugh over that, before the final shootout.
The Rest Of The Cast:
Bonnie Bedelia plays Holly, giving her the right kind of spunk and sass so we can believe that 1) she’s the woman for a guy like McClane, and 2) it’s a good bet they’re gonna patch things up.
Alexander Godunov plays Karl, the vengeance-crazed henchman of Hans who’s obsessed with avenging the death of his brother—the first goon John dispatches. There’s something Klaus-Kinski-esque about his believable craziness and rage.
Reginald VelJohnson Plays Sgt. Al Powell, the LAPD cop who forms a friendship over the radio with John. Their confining in each other over their vulnerabilities and struggles injects a lot of heart into the film.
De’voreaux White plays Argyle, the limo driver. And Clarence Gilyard plays Theo, Hans’s resident hacker and sports-loving nerd.
William Atherton plays Thornburg, the living embodiment of everything a journalist should never, ever be. And Hart Bochner plays Ellis, the conman-type negotiator who acts far too chummy to possibly be convincing. Donald Trump he ain’t.
The Mighty Robert Davi, now one of the key faces of Hollywood Conservatives, plays Special Agent Johnson. No, the other one. And it’s darkly humorous seeing the character start off as a confident professional…and then dissolve into an excitable crazy who gets kinda helicopter crazy.
By The Way…
Pay attention to the opening credits, and you’ll notice a “Based on the novel by Roderick Thorpe.” It’s…actually not that simple. The source material involves a series of novels from Thorpe, the first of which actually inspired the classic film noir The Detective, starring none other than The Chairman Of The Board, Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra.
Amusingly enough, as Die Hard was supposed to be the sequel, Sinatra was supposed to return as the lead. He turned it down…probably because, by 1988, he’d have been insanely too old for an action role. And so, they rewrote the script, making the hero younger and giving him a new name.
Director John McTiernan’s a minor icon of Hollywood actions cinema. Besides Die Hard, he also directed Predator, The Hunt For Red October, and Flight Of The Intruder. His Last Action Hero is an underrated comedic deconstruction of the action flicks he helped codify and define. Sadly, a string of legal troubles have severely derailed his career. We can only hope and pray for a comeback.
Buy this classic here. And stay film-friendly, my friends.
THE SERIES SO FAR:
Rio Bravo (1959)
Man of Steel (2013)
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Fight Club (1999)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Jackie Brown (1997)
Apocalypse Now (1979/2001)
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Dirty Harry (1971)
Magnum Force (1973)
The Enforcer (1976)
Bridge Of Spies (2015)
Captain America: Civil War. (2016)
The Green Berets (1968)
Wonder Woman (2017)
Other People’s Money (1991)
Hail, Caesar! (2015)
Gran Torino (2008)
Any recommendations for films to make this series? Read the rules, here, and let us know!
Eric was raised by Conservative Christian parents, but first became especially passionate about politics in high school, through reading up on economic theory. He also first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged around this time, for the ARI's essay contests. He now owns a great deal of Ayn Rand's work. Also included in his library are the collected works of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, etc.
Eric is no stranger to writing commentary, as the writer of the Conservative Considerations column on CampCampaign.com, and as a film critic and commentator on FlickRev.com. He has also carried on the Conservative tradition of talk radio commentary, as the host of "Avengers of America" for the USF student radio station, Bulls Radio. In the meantime, he is practicing what he preaches: Striving to enter the professional realm of Hollywood, he has already written and directed short films for the Campus MovieFest, which can be found on his YouTube channel, Hard Boiled Entertainment.
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