For 12 days leading up to Christmas, I will be reviewing 12 Christmas-themed films from across the many decades of film. These will not, however, be your ordinary movie reviews. These will be Social Impact Reviews, providing insight into the various ways several beloved films, cult classics, and new faves have potentially made an impact on viewers like you! My research (for a PhD in political science) looks at the impact of fictional, entertainment media on social, political, and policy attitudes. This set of holiday-themed reviews is my first foray into sharing my research with the public – you! And what better way to start than with holiday favorites?
I really do love the Die Hard series. Yes, I even liked Live Free or Die Hard. They’re fun, they’re a good mix of action and plot, and the action scenes are just fantastic. The first movie, released in 1988, is creative, well-written, and carried out for maximum movie-viewing entertainment. That being said, there is a very glaring piece of this film that stood out to me given the current sociopolitical climate. It breaks my heart to point it out, but one of the main implied messages in this film encourages sympathy toward cops in a way that supports one of the most controversial, deadly parts of our criminal justice system. But before I get to that, let’s start with what the film really got right.
This film really gets right women’s shift in occupational importance. The lead character John McClane, played by Bruce Willis, starts out the movie not quite complaining out loud about his wife’s career success. Holly McClane’s career really took off the year prior, and she moved with their children from New York City, where John works as a cop, to Los Angeles, where she is a top executive for a Japanese-American firm that is doing very well. No matter how much John pushes Holly, she never backs down and she never apologizes for her success. By the end of the movie, John openly admits he should have been more supportive of her career, and he implies that he will be more supportive should they stay together after the harrowing hostage crisis.
I also greatly appreciate how John, a tough guy blue-collar cop, takes everything “Los Angeles” in stride. He makes friends with Argyle the young Black limo driver, even though Argyle pesters him with questions and plays rap Christmas music – not John’s taste. When a random guy at Holly’s office holiday party comes up to John and kisses him, John simply chuckles to himself. There’s no racist or homophobic backlash, which we might expect in other films during that era. John just accepts people as they are, which makes a strong role model for other white, tough guy types who might have acted very differently in the same situation. Young boys seeing this film might connect with the demeanor and accept that it doesn’t equate to racism, sexism, or homophobia. Good job, Die Hard.
The cast is also pretty diverse for 1988. The main character is a white man, John, and the secondary characters are a white woman, Holly McClane, a Black man, Police Sergeant Al Powell, and another white man, villain Hans Gruber played by Alan Rickman. The tertiary characters are a Black male limo driver, Argyle, who is mostly stereotypical of a young LA man; an American Black male hacker, Theo, who is very intelligent and very stylish; a group of German blond men who serve as Hans’ cronies; a not-too-street-smart white male Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson who messes up John and Al’s progress at every turn; and a pair of FBI agents, Johnson and Johnson, of whom the Black agent has all of three lines and the white agent seems to be some blood-hungry Vietnam vet (although he also appears far too young to have been deployed to Vietnam). Finally, there is a hot-shot white male reporter who lives up to the anything-for-a-story stereotype, and Holly McClane’s Spanish-speaking nanny, Paulina, whom the reporter threatens with deportation to win his way into the McClane home. Despite the wholly socially unhelpful depiction of Paulina as an undocumented immigrant who seems mostly an afterthought, this likely falls into the “exposing what is” part of cinema. At the time, in Los Angeles, CA, there were likely many undocumented Latinx domestic workers – still are today. However, they might have considered at least one other Hispanic character in the cast.
The most unhelpful stereotypes we’re given are comprised of three versions of what it means to be a police officer. First up, John McClane is labelled by villain Hans Gruber as some sort of American cowboy, leading to the oft-quoted line, “Yippee-ki-yay motherf***er.” John is the smart, no-nonsense rogue who implies he regularly breaks the rules. In John’s first fight scene, the German crony he’s fighting tells John, “You won’t hurt me. You are a policeman. There are rules for policemen.” John replies, “Yeah, that’s what my captain keeps telling me,” before he fights and kills the man. Because rulebreaker John keeps winning, we keep cheering him on.
Deputy Chief Dwayne Robinson, on the other hand, plays by the rule book and thinks he knows it all because of his rank. John and Dwayne’s lower-ranked colleague, Al, tell Dwayne when his plans are going to make things worse, but Dwayne never listens, and he keeps making things worse. Sgt. Al gives us the third cop stereotype, that of the overweight desk jockey. Early on, we learn that left his job as a beat cop after a tragic accident. We meet Al at a convenient store buying junk food for his pregnant wife, frustratedly trying to rebuff the similarly overweight store clerk’s rude remarks about cops eating junk and sitting all day. The scene pushes viewers to openly scoff at the store clerk buying into such ridiculous stereotypes, but the stereotypes we’re left with aren’t any better.
Together, the three police officer stereotypes we’re given – the tough rogue, the street-dumb upper management, and the desk jockey who tragically lost his calling as a beat cop – combine to push social consciousness toward believing a myth that the Black Lives Matter movement is now desperately trying to debunk. The first part of this myth is that rogue cops are a good thing. This is a myth perpetuated in so many films across so many genres. Dirty Harry, Rambo, Han Solo, James T. Kirk – these are all rogues who never followed the rules and always came out the hero. Americans are groomed to believe that as long as the tough guy rogue has his heart in the right place, things will always turn out okay. We’re shown story after story where the everyman is somehow smarter and braver than those with higher ranks or those in management positions. The person with the greater title, or the better education, is often shown as somehow less intelligent and capable. In reality, being a rogue and failing to listen to people in higher positions of authority is how people get killed. I’ll agree that in this particular film it works, especially given that Hans Gruber has specifically calculated his plan to take FBI involvement into account. However, this constant hammering into our heads that people lower on the totem pole and people who like to break rules are always going to be the smartest and the bravest and always going to come out on top is not helpful for society.
The second part of the myth concerns the tragic circumstances that pushed Sgt. Al Powell to his desk job. Al was a beat cop who accidentally shot a kid carrying a toy gun. Sound familiar? In 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland, OH, when the young police officer arriving on the scene mistook the boy’s airsoft-style pellet gun for a real one. In the past decade, the American public has been faced with name after name of African American U.S. citizens who have been killed by police officers. Instead of facing trial, we have learned that many officers instead face paid leave. Sgt. Al Powell, played by Black actor Reginald VelJohnson, shows sincere remorse and shares that he couldn’t fire his weapon again after the mistake. This fictional narrative influences the real-life narrative of similar cases, like that of Tamir Rice. As a result, many people simply accept that, like Al, the officer’s guilt will suffice as punishment over a criminal trial.
When we watch movies like Die Hard, with similar stories of well-meaning police officers making terrible mistakes, we are conditioned to consistently sympathize with the police officer in this situation. At the end of the film (Spoiler Alert), when Al finally fires his gun again to kill the final villain, viewers are poised to cheer him on. We’re set up to hope that he will return to his passion as a beat cop. In real life, we are similarly poised to hope the cops who shoot children, even by mistake, will be equally remorseful and eventually find a way to return to their jobs. Furthermore, we’re conditioned to believe that every cop who shoots someone by mistake will feel as horrible as Al does. We’re primed to believe that they will learn from the mistake and do better. In reality, this probably happens some of the time. But we have been shown too many video-recorded instances where cops, with similar problems in the past, continue to choose shooting first as the best method of policing.
Films like this, which glorify a rogue rule-breaker as the hero and nurture sympathy for a cop who shot a kid, foster the mindset prevalent in white Americans that rogue, rule-breaking cops are heart-of-gold heroes and that all cops who make mistakes deserve second and third and even more chances. This is the mindset and the myth that the Black Lives Matter movement is up against. This film and many, many others have deeply ingrained in Americans the mindset to trust cops first and consider victims later, if ever. It’s a mindset that now threatens to rip America apart, 30 years later.
Other implied messages include: the FBI is power-hungry, America makes everything about terrorism (not totally untrue), men in suits with fancy watches are sleazy, tough guys smoke cigarettes, Europeans smoke gross cigarettes, women in the workplace will be sexual harassed no matter their rank, and Alan Rickman is sexy even as a thief (oh wait, maybe that last one’s just me).
In sum, I will probably still enjoy this movie. As an action movie, there is less likelihood that viewers will retain any of its messages, implicit or explicit. Still, it’s a snapshot of how our society has chosen over the years to depict our law enforcement. A depiction that encourages a dangerous mindset for Americans to have. Considering this country was founded on a distrust of authority, I find it strange that so many white Americans continue to blindly support the armed authorities living in our neighborhoods without question. This film offers a little insight into that willful ignorance.