Actually, it’s a dead heat. The two best Christmas movies ever made are It’s a Wonderful Life (IAWL) and Die Hard (DH).
It should be clear to everyone why the first holds the title. There’s no better story of the hero’s journey toward redemption or the blessings of selfless giving. George Bailey earns heavenly intervention during a literal dark night of the soul — because of his life of devotion to his family and his community. Every frame is perfect. But no one needs a dissertation to be convinced of that.
Die Hard, however? On par with Frank Capra’s masterpiece? Seriously?
Seriously. First, let’s establish that Die Hard is a great movie that changed action films forever. Unlike Rambo, the Terminator, or any character played by Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis as John McClane has no superpowers (other than the ability to drive people crazy, as his wife wryly notes at one point). He prevails through sheer grit, humor, and ingenuity, all the while motivated by his love for his wife. Score points for meaningful theme.
To boot, the script features excellent characterization; seamless plot building; brilliant dialogue, including memorable one-liners that have become iconic; and try-fail cycles with escalating stakes for protagonist (John McClane), antagonist (Hans Gruber and team), and contagonist (the LAPD and FBI). Bonus: did I mention Alan Rickman, aka the best villain of all time? There’s not a single false move anywhere in the film.
But a Christmas movie? The heck you say. Oh, sure, it’s set at Christmastime, and Christmas music begins and ends the film. Santa hats and tinseled trees are everywhere. Other than that, it appears to be a pretty profane movie. Grisly deaths, sick jokes, and F-bombs abound. Bruce Willis as the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed John McClane seems considerably less than messianic at first glance. When all is said and done, it’s a movie that more than earns its R rating.
And yet. There’s more going on here than meets the eye. To wit:
1) Names: the name of every character is deeply symbolic. More on this throughout the points below.
2) John McClane (Bruce Willis) as Everyman: The 15th century morality play The Summoning of Everyman is an allegory illustrating the progress of man through life, from calling to fall to redemption. The original character Everyman finds no help in his pilgrimage, eventually learning when he comes to death that all he has to offer God are his good deeds. The idea was that the audience members of the time would identify with Everyman’s humanity through both his flaws and his vulnerability, learning something about themselves as they witnessed the drama.
McClane is a modern Everyman. His enemy, Gruber, tells his hostages, “You will all be witnesses,” signaling the drama that will unfold. McClane is a blue-collar, NYC cop who’s temporarily lost his wife, Holly, through arrogance and stubbornness. At DH’s beginning, he’s leaving home with hopes of reconciliation, only to fall into the same trap of bickering and blaming when he and Holly first meet up. Though he’s flown across the country, he still has a journey to make — one of self-discovery and reconciliation — much like IAWL’s George Bailey.
3) John McClane as Christ figure: Throughout the Old Testament, Israel, God’s covenant people, is personified by a bride, with Jehovah as her bridegroom. In chapter after chapter, Israel goes astray and breaks her covenants, but Jehovah is endlessly patient and forgiving. Reconciliation is prophesied, often in the image of a blissfully united husband and wife. The New Testament shows God condescending/incarnating into mortal form as Jesus Christ to fulfill those prophecies — to redeem and to unite His covenant people.
McClane leaves the safe comfort of NYC for the strange land of California. Throughout the beginning of DH, he’s confronted by the weirdness of Los Angeles, showing just how out of his element he is. Interestingly, while Jesus had no earthly authority (despite being legally entitled to it), McClane, being out of his jurisdiction, has no legal authority in LA.
His trip has one objective: to be reunited with his family forever. As DH progresses, McClane becomes more and more vulnerable: barefoot; friendless and cut off from communication; exposed; wounded; weaponless. He doesn’t see it yet, but the farther he descends, the closer he comes to redemption.
4) Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) as Satan: “Hans” and “John” are forms of the same name, which means “Jehovah is gracious.” Likewise, Gruber becomes McClane’s dark mirror, constantly reflecting and contrasting false salvation with true salvation. He is a consummate trickster: posing as a high-minded freedom fighter, he’s really a master thief. He is a smooth, educated, polished, and gracious liar, motivated by selfishness and greed. He promises his followers miracles at every turn, only to fail them in the end. At DH’s climax, McClane frees Holly from Gruber’s grasp and casts him down from the 30th floor to the earth, just as Lucifer was cast down.
Oh, and just to hammer the point home, “Gruber” means “from the pit.” Boom.
5) The 30th floor of the Nakatomi Building as Heaven: “Nakatomi” is the name of an ancient Japanese clan that acted as intermediaries between mortals and the gods. McClane and Holly are reunited (both times) on the 30th floor. Gruber seeks to “lay up treasure” for himself there, since that’s where the Nakatomi vault is located. McClane is baptized there, fully immersed in the decorative fountain in the common area. And McClane vanquishes Gruber and casts him down from there.
6) False saviors other than Gruber:
Mr. Tagaki, the gracious, well-meaning U.S. head of the Nakatomi corporation — his name means “tall tree,” but like the cedars of Lebanon and the oaks of Bashan, he cannot prevail.
Harry Ellis — “Henry” means ruler, and Ellis is the English form of Elijah, or “my God is Jehovah.” This coke-snorting executive thinks he can save himself and his co-workers, but his arrogance earns him a bullet in the head.
Johnson and Johnson — The sneering, brutal FBI duo think they can save the day with “only 20% civilian casualties.” A whole lot of C4 on the Nakatomi Building’s roof says otherwise. Note their names, which refer to “John,” but also connote what jerks they are.
Dwayne Robinson — the know-it-all Deputy Chief of the LAPD is humbled rather quickly after a few disastrous attempts at leadership.
7) Other significant names:
Holly Gennaro McClane — Holly is one of the oldest symbols of Christ. “Gennaro” is the Italian form of January, which connotes open doors and new beginnings. “McClane” means “son of the servant of St. John.” John the Baptist or John the Beloved/the Revelator? Either works, given his close connection with Jesus. At the beginning of DH, Holly rejects McClane’s name (see Israel/Jehovah, above), but assumes it at the end.
Al Powell — McClane’s only true friend in LA, an African-American cop who’s a self-described “desk jockey.” His first name means “bright” or “noble” (in contrast to the white Deputy Dwayne’s name, which means “dark”). His surname connotes both “pal” (especially when Bruce Willis says it), and Paul. Like St. Paul, who prosecuted and killed Christians before his conversion but then became a valiant warrior for Christ, Powell mistakenly kills an innocent boy early in his career, but then redeems himself by helping McClane and ultimately saving his life.
Roy — Seeking to hide his identity from Gruber, McClane tells Powell to call him Roy, which of course, means “king.”
8) False redemption: Gruber has one goal: to steal $640 million from the Nakatomi vault. (Satan wants to steal power from Heaven.) From the moment the thieves appear, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is used as their leitmotif, first in a minor key as they sneak into the building, and then at their moment of apparent triumph, when the vault opens (total darkness in the form of a power cut must occur for this to happen, by the way). Beethoven set Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” to music to celebrate the eternal happiness that comes from brotherly union. Working as a team, Gruber and his men achieve their goal — only to be foiled by the true savior, the battered and wounded McClane.
9) True redemption through the passion of John: From the Greek word meaning “to suffer,” the “passion” in Christianity refers to Christ’s redemptive suffering. Throughout DH, McClane suffers increasing pain as Gruber and his henchmen specifically target his vulnerabilities. He’s pushed to every extreme physically, emotionally, and mentally as he works to save his wife and the other hostages. Significantly, his feet get the worst treatment of all.
In his moment of greatest agony, McClane begs Powell to tell Holly how sorry he is for his past mistakes. “She’s heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times, but she’s never heard me say I was sorry.” Shortly after this atonement, he’s baptized as he dives into the Nakatomi fountain to escape a fireball.
Coming through both water and fire, his renewal is thus complete, but it’s not until McClane surrenders to Gruber that Holly recognizes him as the savior that he is. “Jesus,” she whispers when she sees him — whereupon McClane defeats Gruber once and for all.
Still don’t believe me? Just go watch Die Hard again this holiday season, and see if all this doesn’t jump right out at you.