My Thoughts on Die Hard, Part 3
Where I reluctantly acknowledge that I need to stop writing about Die Hard.
We all knew it would happen eventually. We’ve come to my last post about Die Hard. If you've just come here without context, I recommend you check out Part 1 and then Part 2 first.
When we left off Hans had just blown up an LAPD tank, with the nerdy computer kid whacking it in video game fashion (Computers are bad in the world of Die Hard -- you wouldn't don’t see John McClane on a computer).
On the scene for the tank blow-up is the local press. And the only thing worse than governmental authorities (PD chiefs and later FBI agents) are members of the press. And for the evil local news correspondent Dick Thornberg they cast none other than “Dickless” from Ghostbusters.
His name is William Atherton, he’s a serious stage actor who starred in the movie adaptation of “Day of the Locusts.” But he’s known for Die Hard and Ghostbusters, where he plays an evil EPA administrator who Bill Murray called Dickless in the mayor of New York City’s office. So this very accomplished stage actor will be forever known for his roles as Dick and Dickless in Die Hard and Ghostbusters respectively. He's laughing all the way to the bank.
Anyway, Dick Dickless (as we'll call him here) lives up to his name in Die Hard, both with his generic get-the-story-at-all-costs annoyingness, as well as the beautifully assaholic scene where he threatens Holly’s nanny that he’ll call the INS if she doesn’t let him in to interview the kids. Brilliant.
Die Hard is not a political movie in any way and yet I find it notable that John McClane’s enemies are Trump’s enemies. The central antagonist might be Hans, but it’s the interference of government bureaucrats and the press are the ones we love to hate. Dick Dickless may not serve up fake news, but his motives are purely selfish. His first line in the movie is a throw-away phone big where he brags on the phone that he can get a reservation at a fancy restaurant because Wolgang (clearly Puck) is a friend. “I did a story on him!!”
Anyway, after the tank gets blown up and it's on the local news, the FBI arrives, according to Han’s plan. You would think at this point, the scale of the movie would change and high level authorities would be involved. There is a big expensive high rise in LA with a 30 person hostage situation, and an LAPD tank has been blown up by a missile. Even pre-9/11 my feeling is this would draw the attention of say, the President of the United States. And the press coverage would move up to Dan Rather types, or some fictional-Die Hard version of a national news anchor. But Die Hard hardly ever leaves Nakatomi Plaza. It’s like a play in that way. It lives in its own little bubble.
So now the foil is the FBI. We learn the FBI has a playbook for when terrorists take over buildings. And Hans, a born planner (he's German after all) , knows this playbook inside and out. From practically the beginning of the film, the nerdy computer guy has been saying he can do all his computer wizardry on the 6 of the 7 levels of security protecting the vault. But the 7th layer is ELECTRO-MAGNETIC and he can’t possibly be expected to break that. He reminds Hans (and the audience) of this several times. We don’t know or understand anything about this vault other than the fact that it will take a miracle to get past the 7th layer.
Enter the FBI and it’s bureaucratic rules and processes, which include bullying the nice guys from the electric company to shut off their grid. There is something so neat and perfect about this. We know the 7th layer involves electro-magnetic-ness. And so when the FBI orders the electricity taken out, of course that will open the vault. I’ve grown up thinking that’s how high-end vault’s work: if you can cut off all the electricity, you’ve got an open safe. And you’ve got one of the great all-time villain lines: “you ask for miracles, Theo, I give you the F. B. I.” (Note those periods are full stops before full stops were a thing).
So next the FBI leads ill-advised invasion number two on Nakatomi. And the FBI agents in charge, wackily both named Johnson, act on their own with seemingly no oversight. They talk about how losing 25% of the hostages would be an acceptable end to their mission if they take out the terrorists. The elder is on a Vietnam power trip. They’re not just macho, they’re a little psycho macho. And here we see the government paranoia thing approaching a deep state mentality.
So even more than with the tanks, we are given permission to enjoy the blowing up of their helicopters when Hans detonates his detonators. McClane had cleared the roof of the hostages so no innocents are lost, only cynical Fed agents and their faceless helicopter pilots. To the filmmakers, these are acceptable losses.
Around this time, McClane has his epic fight scene with Alexander Godunov’s hair. I will admit that in general I have suspension of disbelief issues with many fight scenes. Like when a guy is lying prone gets kicked in the head I think there should be a response to that. Either by grabbing at his head and cursing and saying something like: "Holy shit you just kicked me in my fucking head! Shit!" Or else he should just pass out because he has a severe concussion and possibly a lifetime disability because it was a fucking devastating kick.
But John's reaction to being kicked in the head by this giant beautiful, accented man, is to throw a punch himself. The turnabouts in fight scenes like this would be head-spinning if we weren’t all so used to it. If anyone was watching a fight scene like this credulously they might give a play by play like this: “holy shit John got kicked in the head and somehow threw a punch that landed! He seems to have control of the situation so now everything will be ok—wait. Wait, oh shit. Actually Godunov recovered from that punch pretty quickly and has John in a choke hold that would kill anyone else instantly. Fuck. John’s going to be dead after that. That’s sad, he’s got two kids and was trying to make up with this wife. Wait, wait, it looks like he’s out of the choke hold and somehow not only not dead but has the energy to counter—” and so on. This goes on for a WHILE. Enough so that I started looking at Bruce Willis during the actual punches and kicks and realize it’s really obvious when it’s his stunt double. Like you can practically see the stunt double guy’s face. You don’t notice, because it’s Die Hard and why would you. But when you look it’s super obvious.
So Godunuv ends this exchange swinging from a chain, presumably (but not really dead) and John gets the hostages off the roof. Around this time we get back to Argyle in the basement. Throughout the movie Argyle has been inexplicably waiting for John where he’s been partying in the limo with the teddy bear, the limo bar and the limo car phone the whole time. He’s been having a great time. But Argyle finally turns on the TV and realizes the shit show he’s in the middle of and then sees a fake emergency vehicle come out of a big truck, and instantly puts it together that he’s seeing bad guys right now. So he gets to smash his limo into the fake emergency truck and give an unneeded punch to the nerdy computer guy for good measure. While Argyle is impossibly charming and it’s nice that he gets to share in the violence, there was something gross about this moment watching it again.
Anyway, soon enough the building blows up, but hostages are rescued, Holly and John are reunited right as John and Al have their bro-hug meeting. Happy vibes all-around. When John introduces Holly to Al, he shows how he now gets it by using Holly’s maiden name, even though we know that concept is repulsive to him, and good lord, hasn’t he shown he’s man enough that any woman of his should take his name? Holly confirms this immediately by correcting him and greeting All with her married “real” name. As the husband of a woman who stubbornly uses her maiden name I often think to myself, “if someday I save her and her co-workers from pseudo terrorists, would she too come to her senses and use my name?” I think she would.
So just as we’re here in wind-down feel good mode, Alexander Godunov and his hair come back from the dead giving Al the chance to use his gun against a real bad guy. This is what guns are for, after all. This moment is a weird one when you think about it. We’ve learned now that Al shot a kid. And that this made Al, literally gun-shy. In the world of Die Hard, having a heart of gold like Al is nice and all, but in the end you need to get over your guilt and be ready to pull the trigger. Al does and we can assume he is no longer a paperwork cop. Thanks to John.
But the surprising acts of violence aren’t done yet. As they’re trying to exit Nakatomi, Holly is asked for comment from Dickless and punches him in the face. How great is that, the asshole press guy being put in its place by a WOMAN. Awesome.
Now if I was Holly I think I would take a pretty strong stand that John at least get a cursory check in at ER. But this is the movies and a final shot of John shuffling through his wallet looking for his insurance card while Holly fills in paperwork would be sort of a buzzkill. So they skip the emergency services altogether and Argyle drives them off into the sunset in the now busted up limo.
And that's it. The movie is over, the credits roll and Phillip mumbles: “Good movie” before going to bed. And I (for whatever reason) started thinking the rambling thoughts you're inexplicably still reading.
As I mentioned in my first post, part of the reason for this has to do with making my own movie. When you’re in the middle of that, you start thinking about the experience of watching movies. What is it I want the audience to see or feel or think at any given time. While it seems like Die Hard doesn’t want you to think anything, it’s actually pretty artful in how it shifts your attention scene by scene and shot by shot.
However complicated the technology of movies gets, it’s still an eye trick. We see 24 non-moving pictures every second and our eyes and brains see it as real life. But while just about everyone watching movies or TV shows knows it’s artificial, when the lights go down we want to believe. Besides a few asshole movie critics, and maybe me at times in this essay, we don’t look for fakeness. It’s in our best interest to believe it, we paid for it after all. The most far-fetched shit Die Hard throws at us still feels real (or real enough) , because they gave us characters and a story we care about.
There are no fight scenes or car chases in my movie. But there is amped up reality. People say and do things that people don’t say and do every day. And some things might come off as unrealistic. But if I tell the story right, it’ll feel real. A lot more real than it did as a play (my movie was a play first).
The bar for reality is higher for the theatre than in the movies. Everything looks fake in the theatre, even when the production values are really good. We see the props that we know are props. We see doors that go backstage, and most important these actors are right in front of me acting like I’m NOT EVEN FUCKING THERE. How full of shit can you be, theatre actors? Movie actors don’t have that problem. They don’t have to worry about audiences. John McClane doesn’t give a shit how loudly you unwrap your candy or whether you break out your cell phone. He is going to tie up this Russian defector playing a German thief in chains and hang him from a ceiling no matter what you do.
Now theatre folk like myself will argue the movies and TV can never match the real-world connection of live performance. I stand by that. A great play (and specifically a great performance of a great play) will stand out as a life event. You are part of an experience and it stays with you. There is no corollary in film or TV. You may love a movie or TV show but it’s rare that you remember the experience of watching it. You remember the thing. You are not a factor.
But movies are more intimate and yes, more real. Watching a movie doesn’t take work. You give yourself over to the filmmakers and the characters. Now I get to the one in control of someone’s movie experience. I get to play God. I get to do the cheating. And if it all works out someone will be sucked in. Not Die Hard sucked in (I’m not setting that kind of bar) but my story will become someone’s reality for a while.
Who knows maybe that someday someone will write a three-part blog post about watching my movie. Or just one blog post? A brief Facebook post? A "like?" I'll take a like.