As older Millennials get old enough to A) have some disposable income (not enough for, say, houses or kids or paying off student loans, but enough to occasionally treat ourselves) and B) realize that our adult lives are taking place in a never-ending horror show of political and social upheaval, we do what every generation does: retreat into the warm embrace of nostalgia. In this essay, I will…
… Actually argue over the course of several pages why Die Hard is a Christmas movie. What, you think I was making that Twitter joke?
Die Hard was released on July 15, 1988 (nope, not at Christmastime), when most of us were too young to see it in the theaters. But after VHS releases in 1989, 1991, and 1995, plus airings on basic cable (albeit with the most famous line redubbed as “Yippee-ki-yay, Mr. Falcon!”), we were able to watch it at home with our families (if they were permissive) or with our babysitters (if they weren’t). A tight, satisfying script and star-making performances elevated Die Hard above other action films of its time, like the cringingly bad (but still beloved) Commando and Predator. (Not to pick on Arnold Schwarzenegger.) The movie launched Bruce Willis’s decades-long career as an action star, and it was the very first film appearance of Alan Rickman, with his refined, sophisticated charm and mellifluous voice. It made him an iconic villain long before he embodied the following generation’s ideal bad guy, Severus Snape.
Take a pretty good movie and play it over and over again in a kid’s life, and you get that comforting fondness that draws viewers back as adults. As Millennials aged, allowing them to appreciate the real version of the most-famous line and those 1980s R-movie bare boobies, Die Hard’s popularity resurged. Looking at Google Trends (which goes back to 2004), Die Hard’s first spikes in popularity aren’t surprising: they center around the release of two sequels, Live Free or Die Hard (2007) and A Good Day to Die Hard (2013). Let’s face it, those movies were… bad. But they were enough to remind young adult audiences of the original film. Starting in 2014, spikes in Google Trends began to appear every December, increasing with each passing year. In response to this growing interest, savvy networks and movie theaters replayed the original during the holidays. And not just replaying it: holding entire celebrations of the film. In 2016, The Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco held a full “Nakatomi Christmas ‘88” party featuring themed menus, a “Yippee-ki-yay” contest, and a gift bag with Twinkies and cap guns. (I should know, I was there.) The internet, the ultimate nostalgia engine, took it from there with memes, articles, and videos that celebrated and over-analyzed the film. (And obviously, I’m right there with ‘em.)
This not only explains why Millennials love the 1988 Die Hard, but it also how it came to be more closely associated with Christmas than it was perhaps originally intended. After all, what holiday taps into comforting memories of childhood more than Christmas? Die Hard’s Christmastime setting created a tenuous connection to the holiday, allowing it to essentially double down on those nostalgic feelings. As the film replayed during the holidays, it created a feedback loop that strengthened those associations. Die Hard is now fixed in audiences’ minds as a Christmas movie, no matter what its actual content – chalk one point up for the Christmas side.
But was Die Hard intended as a Christmas movie? The source material for the film was the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp. (On an unrelated note, because this novel was a sequel to his book The Detective, which starred Frank Sinatra in its film adaptation, the role of John McClane was contractually required to be offered to Sinatra first. He was 73 at the time. He turned it down.) In the book, the main character (named Joe Leland here) visits his daughter at her high-rise office during her Christmas party, and fights off a group of terrorists intent on exposing the company’s shady dealings. So: the source material set the story’s events at Christmas. Score another one for the pro-Christmas argument.
What about the filmmakers? Die Hard’s screenwriter, Steven de Souza, acknowledges the novel’s holiday setting in an interview with Dazed Digital. He continues: “One of our producers, Joel Silver, had made Lethal Weapon the previous year, which was also set during the holiday, and he had decided he liked all his movies to take place at Christmas, as they would then very likely be played on television every December and we would all get residual cheques. Obviously, he was right!”
Director John McTiernan might not have seen Die Hard as a thematically Christmas movie, but he still used visuals to anchor the film within the holiday. Most sets, from the Nakatomi office to the police dispatch station, have Christmas decorations up. It’s a perfect juxtaposition to the violence in the movie. Instead of kids opening presents beneath a Christmas tree, we get the corpse of a dead terrorist in an elevator wearing a Santa hat, ho ho ho. McTiernan’s biographer, Larry Taylor, tells Dazed Digital: “More importantly for McTiernan, he wanted the characters and the music to carry the Yuletide tone through. He made sure composer Michael Kamen sprinkled jingling bells and brief hints of Christmas songs within his tense score. It’s all a way for him to make Christmas the canvas for his action movie.”
All right – the filmmakers acknowledge and emphasize the movie’s Christmas setting, even if they weren’t exactly feeling the Christmas spirit. I’ll take it.
By the way, we’re not counting what Bruce Willis said at his recent Comedy Central roast. Yes, he denied that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. But his actual quote was, “Die Hard is not a Christmas movie! It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!” With that logic, The Sixth Sense isn’t a ghost story and The Fifth Element isn’t a sci-fi film, they’re Bruce Willis movies. Whatever, Bruno.
All right, now to the part of the argument that I like to loudly explain to people when I get a little drunk in December: the events of the movie could literally not take place if it was not set during Christmas. I’ll keep this section more to the point:
- The reason John McClane is visiting his family in Los Angeles is because it’s Christmas.
- The reason McClane has to go to the Nakatomi building is to meet with Holly, who is there to support her company’s Christmas party.
- (This doesn’t really relate to my argument, but I think it’s interesting to note that McClane makes a comment to Holly’s boss, Mr. Takagi, that he didn’t realize the Japanese celebrate Christmas. Takagi responds with a cringe-inducing, “Hey, we’re flexible. Pearl Harbor didn’t work out so we got you with tape decks.” Something to be said there about that mid-80s xenophobic fear of Japanese companies doing business in America, but that’s a different essay.)
- Hans Gruber and his gang target the Nakatomi corporation at the end of a successful year, and more importantly during a time when a) there will be fewer people in the building, b) key target employees will be in the office after hours, and c) security will be light and police response will be slow.
- At the very end of the movie, McClane goes to confront Hans but needs to hide a gun on his person so he can appear unarmed. And what’s sitting right there? A GIFT WRAPPING STATION with TAPE for him to TAPE THE GUN TO HIS BACK.
Could this movie have worked on the Fourth of July? Maybe the Nakatomi corporation could have held a barbecue for their employees, but they would likely be outside of the building and away from its vault (remember, Hans’s Plan A was to get the vault’s code from Takagi), and McClane certainly wouldn’t have boarded a plane for a few hot dogs. How about Thanksgiving? McClane would probably fly across the country to be with his family for that holiday, but Takagi and his employees wouldn’t have hung out in the office after hours. Easter? Valentine’s Day? Give me a break. From a plot perspective, Die Hard revolves around Christmas. That’s an easy point in my favor.
Finally, let’s compare Die Hard to more traditional Christmas films. A glance at AFI’s top 20 holiday movies reveals… well, a lot of old white people chastely singing carols. Rotten Tomatoes’ list is a bit more diverse in genre and date of release. But most of these films, from It’s a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol to The Santa Clause and Elf, center on themes of family and redemption. And what’s Die Hard got? Themes of family and redemption.
John McClane and his wife Holly are estranged because Holly got “a good job that turned into a great career.” In John’s mind, Holly chose that career over her family, even going back to her maiden name. Although Holly’s motives aren’t explored in the film, it could be easily extrapolated that Holly’s drive was about benefiting her family. When she moves out to Los Angeles, she takes the kids and John remains behind. It’s actually John who breaks up his family by not supporting his wife – and it’s this trip to see them for Christmas that is meant to reunite them. John and Holly get so close to a happy reconciliation; Holly invites John to stay with them at her house instead of crashing with his old captain, and John accepts. But John, resentful and surly, picks a fight with her – and that’s when Hans arrives.
The rest of the movie is John’s literal fight to save his wife. With no shoes, no backup, and just a handgun (well, until he gets that machine gun later), John risks his life to take down the gang of robbers and rescue Holly. During his ordeal, John gets to know Sgt. Al Powell via radio, bonding over his impending fatherhood, and Al’s guilt over having shot a kid with a toy gun. (And that’s another essay for another time.)
As to be expected in any Hollywood movie, John is victorious over Hans and his gang. In the end, his family is the only thing that matters, and he sacrifices almost everything to ensure its safety. In the film’s denouement, John shows his acceptance and support of his wife by introducing her to Al as “Holly Gennaro.” For her part, Holly corrects him and says she’s “Holly McClane.” (I could split that all kinds of ways as a self-identifying feminist who’s already declared she will never change her name, but I’ll let this stand because they’re both making concessions to each other.) John is redeemed, and even Al has a moment of redemption as he’s finally able to fire his weapon again, saving the McClanes from an implausibly-resurrected Karl. The movie closes with John and Holly riding off into the metaphorical sunset in Argyle’s limo as “Let It Snow” plays them out – all while $640 million in bearer bonds snow down on them from above. A feel-good ending with a family together again? That’s a Christmas theme if I ever goddamn saw it.
Anyway, this is the part where I’d have a conclusion if I was sober. But I’m not, so: I’m right, Die Hard is a Christmas movie, the end.