The 1988 action classic “Die Hard,“ starring Bruce Willis and the late Alan Rickman, has become standard holiday season viewing in the 30 years since its release, but the debate remains: Is it really a “Christmas movie,” or just a movie that happens to be set at Christmas?
Of course, that question ultimately doesn’t matter much. It’s only a matter of genre, which has really no bearing on either our enjoyment or understanding of a film. That said, as far as there can be an objective qualification for “Christmas movie,” I’d say “Die Hard” meets the requirements.
What Counts As a Christmas Movie?
Since the question hinges on there being a difference between a Christmas movie proper and a movie set around Christmas, it seems that a Christmas movie proper is a film that has some thematic element of Christmas as a central part of its story, while also linking this theme with the Christmas holiday itself. For instance, generosity and kindness are Christmas themes, but a film is not a Christmas movie for featuring them, only if they are linked with the Christmas season (otherwise something like “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” would be considered a Christmas movie).
So a Christmas movie is a movie specifically about Christmas and the related ideas of love, generosity, family, and so on. “Miracle on 34th Street” is a Christmas movie, not only because it is set during Christmas and features Santa Claus, but because it is all about putting innocence, generosity, and kindness ahead of modern cynicism and consumerism.
It would be going too far to say that “Die Hard” has the same moral premise as “Miracle on 34th Street,” but it wouldn’t be wholly inaccurate either, because “Die Hard” is all about the clash between love and materialism.
The Allure of Greed
The film, as most of us well know, follows New York cop John McClane as he flies out to Los Angeles to visit his family for Christmas. He is separated from his wife, Holly, who moved to LA to take a lucrative job with the Nakatomi Corporation. Soon after he meets her at the company Christmas party, the building is taken over by terrorists led by the intimidating Hans Gruber, who are looking to rob the high-tech vault of half a billion dollars.
One of the perennial temptations of the Christmas season is losing sight of the actual meaning of the holiday and becoming too preoccupied by the materialistic desire for gain (Black Friday gives us yearly examples of this sort of thing in action). The celebration of Christmas, and even visits with family and friends, turn into rote, mechanical exchanges, in which we simply go through the motions, without considering any deeper purpose to the holiday. “Die Hard,” in its own way, is all about this phenomenon, about losing sight of what is truly important amid the commercial, the material, and the automated.
This theme is established from the start of the film. John and Holly McClane’s marriage is on shaky grounds because neither is willing to compromise on their careers for the sake of their family. Holly moved across country and even adopted her maiden name (“Gennaro,” evoking “generic”) to pursue her corporate job, while John accepted the separation to continue his job as a cop in New York. John is understandably angry with her for dropping his name, yet he thinks nothing of eying attractive strangers, showing that neither puts a high priority on their marriage.
The Nakatomi Corporation itself is likewise thoroughly commercial, although not necessarily in a heartless way. Holly’s genial boss, Mr. Takagi, jokes, “Pearl Harbor didn’t work, so we got you with tape decks,” while cheerfully saying that they’re celebrating Christmas as “opportunists.” For the company, it’s all about profit, and while this doesn’t make them the bad guys by any stretch (Takagi is a thoroughly sympathetic character), it helps to set the stage.
Even the Police and Terrorists Are In On It
This same pattern plays out in the police, FBI, and press. It takes a long time for the police to even understand that John’s frantic calls for help are genuine, and when they do show up the arrogant police chief mindlessly throws expensive, hi-tech, and obviously unsuitable equipment at the problem. Later, the FBI agents simply follow the anti-terrorist playbook and callously shrug off the possibility of losing a fair percentage of the hostages. All the while, the press is only too happy to commoditize the disaster with sensationalist coverage, like interviews with a self-promoting and hilariously inaccurate “expert,” and forcing the McClane children into a live interview.
None of these characters (except John’s contact, Al) seem particularly concerned with their ostensible duties. The police and FBI show little concern for the hostages they are supposedly sworn to protect, instead showing more concern for their careers and egos. The same is true of the press, who don’t care about informing the public, but about what they can get out of the situation.
It’s just like how John and Holly McClane each selfishly pursue their careers at the expense of their family. This is a world where everything from family and marriage to the law to Christmas itself is automated and commoditized, not done from real passion or principle, but for what can be gotten out of it.
This very fact, much more than their weaponry, is what gives Hans and his men so much power. Hans knows full well how both the police and the corporation think and how to exploit them. Time and again the authorities fall into his traps because they simply follow mindless routines, just as he expects them too. His whole plan, in fact, depends upon the authorities being “regular as clockwork,” just as it depends on the building being largely automated.
The end goal is the same as Nakatomi corporation’s: money. Hans disguises his greed by playing the role of an ideological terrorist (something the film implies he once was) to throw off the police. He is thus commoditizing his once-sincerely held principles in order to make a profit. In other words, he’s doing exactly what so much of the modern world does to Christmas itself.
Contrast That with the Spirit of Christmas
That brings us to the other side of the equation. Against these forces of entrenched materialism are the more basic and meaningful factors of good and evil, family, love, and devotion. John McClane is established early on to be out of step with the modern, techno-corporate world. He doesn’t like flying and doesn’t know how to use the building computer, nor does he appreciate the fancy drink a waiter offers him at the party (he’s the only man not in a suit and tie).
All this is to signal that John is not quite like the other characters, because at the end of the day, and in spite of his rough edges, he is a principled man. This is definitively demonstrated in an early scene where he gets the drop on one of the terrorists and, despite the man being armed and uncooperative, John refrains from shooting him, opting to try to subdue him physically instead. This comes shortly after a scene where Hans cold-bloodedly murders an unarmed man, highlighting the difference between the two characters.
John, unlike Hans, the police, the media, and the corporation, has not lost sight of his principles. This means that when the fighting starts, he isn’t wedded to a mechanical formula. He is working towards one specific goal after another— to summon help, evade capture, and stop Hans’s plan, all with the guiding end of saving his family. That John is working for a principle rather than a routine allows him to see past the obvious and improvise solutions on the fly, as demonstrated by how he works his way up to more and more unconventional methods of summoning the authorities.
Over the course of the crisis, both John and Holly come to understand what they really value and how superficial and unimportant their argument is. Hans essentially forces the question upon them by putting both characters in a situation where the questions of life and death and love and hate are unmistakably real, and the fact of their marriage is inescapable. Both also express disgust when they learn Hans is “nothing but a common thief.” Having realized what truly matters, his materialistic goals seem ridiculously petty to them.
In summary, we have a story where one man is after pure material gain, using once-sincere beliefs as a disguise to get what he wants, while another man opposes him, fighting for his family and his principles. The bad guy depends upon people following routines because they’ve lost sight of their actual principles, while the hero succeeds because he hasn’t lost sight of them, and it all takes place on Christmas Eve. That sure sounds like a Christmas movie to me.