Questioning whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie (it is) has become the holiday version of ‘is a hot dog a sandwich?’ (it’s not).The debate has transitioned from Christmas dinner banter to the go-to blather of pub-bores everywhere. When something’s a ‘hot topic’ for three decades, it goes colder than yesterday’s hot chocolate. The debate is over. Time to discuss the yuletide merits of The Last Boy Scout.
However, last year Die Hard director John McTiernan finally weighed in on the topic, and in doing so threw a fresh log on the fire by saying that Die Hard’s tone was informed by Frank Capra’s beloved holiday fable It’s a Wonderful Life.
‘Specifically, the Pottersville sequence,’ McTiernan told the American Film Institute. ‘Which is what happens when the evil banker gets to do what he wants in the community without George getting in the way to stop it. And it’s the clearest demonstration and criticism of runaway, unregulated cowboy capitalism that’s ever been done in an American movie.’
McTiernan’s comments struck a particular nerve in this writer because I’ve been saying this for years: Not only is Die Hard a Christmas movie, but it’s actually a stealth retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life. Just as Scrooged retold A Christmas Carol through the lens of ‘80s corporate television, Die Hard is basically Capra’s story filtered through an ‘80s action-movie fantasia. Here is irrefutable proof.
John McClane is basically George Bailey with bloody feet
When we first meet Bruce Wills’s detective John McClane, he isn’t exactly contemplating his own mortality on the precipice of a bridge like James Stewart’s George Bailey – that comes later and involves a fire hose – but life isn’t exactly great. He’s tired. He’s cranky. He’s got a long backlog of New York scumbags and a long flight standing between him and his family. Looking to rekindle things, he makes fists with his toes, boards a plane and heads off for a surprise reunion.
Yet no sooner than he slips on a fresh undershirt, John is suddenly slapped with a reality: his LA trip shows him what life would be like without him… just like the angel Clarence (more on him in a minute) did to George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Whereas George finds out what the world would be like had he never been born, McClane is basically seeing a vision of life after his inevitable divorce and bitter custody battle.
All in all, life without John McClane looks much better than life without George Bailey
In George’s vision, things are grim: his absence from the Earth means a string of dead children he wasn’t able to save – including the kid accidentally poisoned by drunken pharmacist Mr Gower and a brother George wasn’t able to save from drowning. It’s also a world where his own kids don’t exist – with nobody around to lasso her moon, his wife is now a nebbish librarian.
McClane, meanwhile, finds out that life is pretty kush without him. Wife Holly is living under her maiden name and the second-in-command at an international corporation, where she is well-liked and has her pick of coked-up suitors. His kids are being raised by a stranger named Paulina. They seem to live in a large house much nicer than whatever NY apartment he could afford on a cop’s salary. All in all, life without John McClane looks much better than life without George Bailey.
Of course, in Die Hard’s version, John finds out that he really is needed: He’s very, very good at shooting people. No, he doesn’t save everybody – RIP Joe Takagi and Ellis – but he does find a chance to reconcile with his wife by seeing the error of his ways while slowly bleeding to death from the feet. When he emerges from the rubble of Nakatomi, covered in brain matter and ash, he’s a man renewed, ready to be a better dad and a better partner. And while he never utters a line like: ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings,’ he does give us a yuletide greeting for the ages: ‘Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker.’
Speaking of angels…
Al Powell is Clarence the guardian angel
In It’s a Wonderful Life, George’s guide to parallel reality is Clarence (Henry Travers), an ‘angel second class’ tasked with showing George how bad life would be without him. And it works! His reveals that the George-less Bedford Falls is now the den of sin known as Pottersville, that his wife is a lonely nerd and – again, because it’s worth noting how messed up this movie is – several kids died by poisoning and drowning because he wasn’t there to save them. Eventually, once George sees that life is worth living and comes back from the ledge, Clarence gets an angel promotion and his new set of wings.
McClane also has a narrator explaining to him everything that’s happening as he slays his way through Nakatomi: Twinkie enthusiast, expectant father and child killer (!!) Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). Like Clarence the angel, Sergeant (second class?) Powell narrates from a disembodied vantage, swapping ethereal omnipotence for a seat at the base of Nakatomi and a private walkie-talkie frequency.
This angel got his wings through the powerfully American achievement of shooting a foreigner in the head
Throughout, Al serves as a confidant to McClane, but he also has a lot of time to serve as his personal Jiminy Cricket, helping the hero deal with his guilt over his long-distance relationship with his children and his frayed marriage to Holly (plus his guilt over letting yuppie cocaine enthusiast Ellis die). In many ways, he’s John’s spirit guide, helping him see his own value: Where Clarence spent It’s a Wonderful Life telling George why he should live to begin with, Al spends the bulk of Die Hard telling him why he needs to survive the night.
Oh, and that whole ‘every time a bell rings’ business? Die Hard has its own version of that too: Al, a paper pusher following a pretty horrifying accident in the line of duty with extreme real-world parallels, can’t bring himself to use his service revolver. But following his experience helping McClane, he finds the strength to shoot a half-dead terrorist/ballet dancer in the face as the soundtrack ascends to a hosannah.
This angel got his wings alright – and probably some administrative leave and mandatory therapy – through the powerfully American achievement of shooting a foreigner in the head.
Hans Gruber is Mr. Potter, and Nakatomi is Bedford Falls
There aren’t an awful lot of comparisons to be made between Alan Rickman’s slick Euroterrorist Hans Gruber to Lionel Barrymore’s shitbag Mr Potter: Gruber’s a dapper greedhead with combat training, while Potter is a sniveling robber baron. Yet both are world-class scumbags with wavering accents who target a family-owned business – Nakatomi Corporation in Die Hard, Bailey Bros. Building & Loan in It’s a Wonderful Life – for their own ends.
Both have good taste in suits, both likely subscribe to Time magazine and both like to talk in flashy threats about the value of human life. At one point Mr. Potter even mutters the dismissive ‘you’re worth more to me dead than alive,’ a line that would sound perfectly natural purring from Rickman’s sinuses.
They’re the same Christmas movie – give or take the odd bullet-riddled track suit
Of course, the stories end on spectacularly different notes: Mr Potter finishes the film $8000 richer, having stolen a wad of cash from Bailey’s business – where he was a board member no less – and presumably spends Christmas on a beach earning 20 percent. Hans Gruber is dropped off a high-rise and presumably ends the film with the same consistency of plum pudding, coins and all.
Taken on their own, these parallels are common enough that they could certainly be coincidence: Flawed heroes often find redemption in dire situations, and glowering character actors in black suits are frequently up to no good. But both Die Hard and It’s a Wonderful Life surround these thematic choices with holiday detritus, guardian angels, friends in need and the nods to the redemptive qualities of family time and self-assurance.
Each is a great Christmas movie. That they’re actually the same Christmas movie – give or take an explosion or a bullet-riddled track suit – makes it even more magical.
Yippee kay-yay, you wonderful old Building & Loan.