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Bobby Bermea: ‘Die Hard’ – NOT a Christmas movie

Sure, it's an entertaining action flick. But its connections to Christmas are surface stuff. Go ahead: Watch it, and have fun. But when it comes to the spirit of the holiday, it doesn't fit the bill.

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“It’s not Christmas until Hans Gruber falls from Nakatomi Plaza” – internet meme

Alan Rickman as bad guy Hans Gruber falling in the not-a-Christmas-movie “Die Hard.” 20th Century Fox/1988.

Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. This is not a real debate. Even people who claim it is a Christmas movie don’t actually believe it’s a Christmas movie. They just hate Christmas movies. Or they hate Christmas. Or they just need a palette cleanser from all the syrupy, over-the-top, emotional manipulation that typically makes up your traditional holiday fare.

And who can blame them? How many different versions of A Christmas Carol can one stand? How many times do we need to see him steal it to realize that eventually, the Grinch is just going to give Christmas back? Does anyone actually like The Nutcracker? I get it. You get it. Everybody gets it.

There was a time, long ago, when I lived in denial of my Christmas nerd-dom. I was too cool, too hip, too angry, too progressive, too something. But as I’ve gotten older and I’ve realized that I’m not edgy, gritty, mysterious, or hard, I’ve also come to grips with the fact that I love Christmas. I’ve always loved it. I grew up Catholic and my family loved Christmas. And when you’re a child, and you’re a Christian, it doesn’t get bigger than Christmas. There’s the obvious, of course, loot. We were a military family, so we always had a little something, and my parents always went out of their way to make it special for my sister and me.

But there was more to it than that. When you’re a small child, there’s no other time of year when you ponder so explicitly what it means to be a good person – or not – and what the ramifications of each choice might be. And when you grow up religious, outside of Halloween there is no time of year when the world so completely embraces the existence of the supernatural.

Big stuff, too. Ghosts, goblins, and witches seem like child’s play when compared to visiting all the children in the world in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, or bringing a star to a standstill and having it go supernova for the sole purpose of pointing out one tiny single spot on a tiny little planet at the edge of a small galaxy. The magic of Christmas, indeed.

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For my family, decorating the (real) tree was a family ritual. Driving around and looking at Christmas lights. Making tamales and singing carols on Christmas Eve. And one of the big ones was making a metric ton of Christmas cookies and then driving around and giving them to friends and families. Because the bottom line of Christmas is to give; to create and celebrate community.

“Die Hard” vintage movie poster. 20th Century Fox/1988.

Now, Die Hard. I feel compelled to say out of the gate that I like Die Hard. I liked it when it first came out, and have had no reason to adjust my opinion since. And what’s funny is, when I’ve had this discussion with people in life, they are always surprised that I stand on the side of the argument that I do. I haven’t seen any of the sequels because, generally, I’m not a sequels guy, and I haven’t heard that they were anything more than formulaic — that is, following the formula laid down by the original.

And I haven’t seen the original much since it first came out. Maybe three times? Once, in preparation for this and maybe a time or two else because I really have no idea why. I think the “critical reassessment” that Die Hard has undergone since its initial run is so much who-hash. People are working way too hard.

Die Hard was released on July 17, 1988. July. It was meant to be a summer action B-movie. And so it was. A smash hit without a doubt, but a B movie nonetheless, and everybody responsible for its existence was surprised by its success. Expectations were so low that every famous movie star had already turned it down: Schwarznegger, Stallone, Eastwood, Harrison Ford, Richard Gere, to name just a few. But the quality of the film or lack thereof is not even the point here.

Usually, proponents of the idea that Die Hard is a Christmas movie head straight for the easy stuff. The film takes place on Christmas Eve, McClane is flying out to join his family, the film plays Christmas music periodically, etc. Bruce Willis’s beleaguered everyman cop is how a lot of men would like to see themselves: flawed and broken in more ways than one but ultimately unbowed and worth loving. It’s all very surface level stuff.

A true Christmas movie, even if you don’t want to se it yet again. Theatrical poster for the 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life.” © 1946 RKO Pictures Inc.

But if you’re trying to find a way to get out of watching It’s A Wonderful Life one more time, I can see someone desperately hanging on to these thin threads of the veneer of Christmas like a drowning man holding on to a single plank of wood. And, honestly, I’m not here to take that away from you. By all means, hold on. But that’s not because Die Hard actually fits the bill. 

Let’s start with the title, which wouldn’t look out of place in the oeuvre of Steven Seagal. “Steven Seagal in Today You Die. Steven Seagal in Driven to Kill. Steven Seagal in Half Past Dead (these are real titles to real movies). Steven Seagal in…Die Hard.” You get the idea. It almost makes more sense.

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And then there’s the tone, the themes of the movie itself. I saw one contemporary critic say about Die Hard, “That’s right, I’m saying it, loudly and proudly, since John McTiernan’s 1988 action classic isn’t just set at Christmastime—it embodies the very spirit of the holiday.” But he never actually spells out how exactly it embodies that spirit, or how precisely, what that spirit is.

And maybe the crux of the discussion lies therein. What is the spirit of Christmas? If Christmas is about using breathtaking violence to solve your problems, then yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie. If Christmas is about hanging the bad guy with a chain, then you got me, Die Hard is a Christmas movie. If it’s about how liberal use of bullets and explosives can save your marriage, then obviously, Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

Or look at it a different way. What if Die Hard were the prototype for Christmas stories? Then Bob Cratchit would have to rescue Tiny Tim from the evil clutches of Scrooge, who was about to sell him to a workhouse and the story would crescendo into a knock-down, drag-out fight that culminates with Cratchit beating Scrooge into oblivion with Tim’s crutch.

In the 1966 animated TV movie verdion of Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” the green guy eventually shows there’s hope for us all, even in Whoville.

Or the Grinch and his band of … grinches(?) conduct an Assault On Precinct 13-type attack on Whoville, which the Whos beat back with wit, ingenuity, and a stock load of automatic weapons that never have to be reloaded.

Or, instead of his eloquent and powerful response to Charlie Brown’s anguished plea for someone to tell him what Christmas is all about, Linus’s response is, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” and flips aside his blanket that had been concealing an M-60, shouts “Yippee-ki-yay, mother******!” and rains down a hail of bullets on the other kids, who dive behind chairs, stage curtains and Schroder’s piano and other set pieces and then return fire with weapons of their own.

Now, as I write this, I can see the inherent appeal of all these scenarios. I can’t say for a second that the twisted dark side that makes up most of my soul wouldn’t be at least intrigued by the image of gun-toting Linus wreaking righteous havoc or Scrooge and Cratchit going at it in bullet-time, Matrix-style combat, a la Neo and Agent Smith. That’s fun. It’s all fun. But … that’s not really what Christmas is about, is it?

No, because in A Christmas Carol the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future rekindle the flames of empathy and compassion in Scrooge by showing him where love has existed in his own life, and where it exists in the world around him, and where the lack of love can and has led him down a path he really doesn’t want to go. The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes that day because of the Whos’ joyful singing in the face of losing all their material wealth. Lucy and her gang of narcissistic miscreants are saved by Charlie Brown’s vulnerability and Linus’s generous profundity; and in response, they save the tree with a little love. At what other period in the year are these solutions to the world’s problems even suggested, let alone given any sort of weight, or unironically presented as actually working?

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Linus is a good guy — a CHRISTMAS kind of good guy — in CBS’s animated 1965 television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

In 2023 we are a deeply cynical society, and those calluses have been hard-earned by decades of brutal experience. I read somewhere that the United States has been at war for approximately 229 out of the 247 years of its existence – an utterly insane statistic. Throw into that slavery, genocide, civil war, pandemics, and a host of other Revelations-like trials and tribulations and it can be surprising that we move forward as a nation at all. According to ABC News there have been 627 mass shootings in this country this year. Speaking of insane statistics.

Don’t we want a break from all that? Shouldn’t we want other choices provided than the violence that we’re obviously addicted to? Isn’t that the whole point of Christmas — to provide solutions we don’t usually use? To put that normal shit down. To find humanity even in those people, the Grinches, Scrooges or Lucys – or Hans Grubers — who seem to lack it?

If Die Hard were a Christmas movie, Hans Gruber wouldn’t have to fall off Nakatomi Plaza. He would discover the error of his ways and make a better choice, probably before he did something unforgivable. Powell, McClane’s cop friend on the ground, wouldn’t have to be redeemed by shooting Alexander Godunov, the world’s meanest ballet dancer, but by convincing him of the error of his ways and helping him see the light. McClane and Holly would get back together because he revealed he had more in his emotional toolkit than punching and shooting his problems away. If Die Hard were a Christmas movie, McClane and Powell and Holly would engender empathy and love in Hans Gruber and his henchmen, and at the end, they’d all join hands in a circle and sing “Dah Who Doraze.”

But none of that happens. You know why? Because Die Hard is not a Christmas movie. And that’s okay. It’s an action movie. And a damn good one, at that. In Die Hard, all of life’s problems, even a failing marriage, can be cured by shooting or blowing them up. But Christmas, we should all hope, is here to remind us that there are other means to achieve larger, more hopeful goals. Merry Christmas.

— “Yippee-ki-yay, mother******!”   — John McClane, Die Hard

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bobby Bermea is an award-winning actor, director, writer and producer. He is co-artistic director of Beirut Wedding, a founding member of Badass Theatre and a long-time member of both Sojourn Theatre and Actors Equity Association. Bermea has appeared in theaters from New York, NY, to Honolulu, HI. In Portland, he’s performed at Portland Center Stage, Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland Playhouse, Profile Theatre, El Teatro Milagro, Sojourn Theatre, Cygnet Productions, Tygre’s Heart, and Life in Arts Productions, and has won three Drammy awards. As a director he’s worked at Beirut Wedding, BaseRoots Productions, Profile Theatre, Theatre Vertigo and Northwest Classical, and was a Drammy finalist. He’s the author of the plays Heart of the City, Mercy and Rocket Man. His writing has also appeared in bleacherreport.com and profootballspot.com.

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