This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 19, 2008 - Some years ago, my older daughter was working for the development department of the university she was attending. It was December, and she and other students were calling alumni, asking them to make an end-of-the-year pledge to the school. As one of those incentive games the organizers of the phone-a-thon designed to make the evening a little more interesting for the students, every time someone got a pledge, he or she could nominate a film as part of a list of "the best Christmas movies of all time."
As my daughter tells it, the early nominations were not surprising: "A Christmas Story," "It's a Wonderful Life," "The Santa Clause." When my daughter got her first "yes" from an alum, she offered, "'Die Hard.'"
Almost immediately, students began protesting: "Die Hard" wasn't a Christmas movie. A student who'd just hung up the phone after getting an alum to contribute asked, "Can I use my vote to take 'Die Hard' off the list instead of adding something else?"
My daughter didn't - and I don't - understand the furor: "Die Hard" - which came out 20 years ago this past July and which my five children and I have watched as a family tradition nearly every Dec. 24 for most of those two decades - is every bit as much a Christmas movie as "It's a Wonderful Life" or "The Santa Clause" or pretty much any other Christmas movie or television special you'd like to name: "Home Alone," "Miracle on 34th Street," "A Christmas Carol," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Elf."
All right, so there are explosions. And shootings. And a helicopter crash. And car crashes. And a body count that requires a tally sheet to keep track of. And the hero ends up bloodied. And the climax of the film has the villain crashing out of a plate-glass window of a skyscraper and falling 30-something floors to the street below. And the violence and language and brief nudity earn it an R rating.
But there's no question it's a Christmas movie.
I say this not merely because it takes place on Dec. 24 or because the centerpiece of the film is an office Christmas party that's a slightly more risque version of the one near the climax of Billy Wilder's 1960 classic "The Apartment" - a Christmas film, I hasten to add, that features rampant infidelity and an attempted suicide. And, for that matter, how squeaky-clean is "It's a Wonderful Life," which offers (in the background of George Bailey's own journey toward conversion) theft, alcoholism, the hint of prostitution (Violet) and the principal character's musings on ending his own life as he stands on a bridge, considering jumping?
No, I say this because, despite its high-octane action-adventure ingredients, "Die Hard" centers on themes identical to the most sentimental Christmas film: the importance of family and a reaffirmation that human connection is the ultimate expression of the spirit of the season.
The film begins with the hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis), arriving by plane in Los Angeles. We learn that he's come - although he's mortally afraid of flying - because six months earlier his wife (appropriately named "Holly") had moved to the West Coast with their two children after she was offered a good job with a Japanese company. John had stayed behind partly because, as he puts it, he was a New York cop with a six-month backlog of scumbags to get behind bars. There's an unspoken reason as well: He was a first-class alpha male who thought his wife should subordinate her professional aspirations in favor of preserving the traditional nuclear family.
McClane's plan is to confront his wife and insist that she come back with him so that the two of them and their son and daughter can be a family again. His wife, however, has other ideas. She's even given up his name to further her career, reverting to her maiden name, Gennaro, because, as she explains to John in an argument they have during their reunion, a Japanese company (in the 1980s) wouldn't give the same opportunities for advancement to a married woman.
So, there we have it: one of the traditional elements of the first act of a good many Christmas films, separation from family or, alternately, "The Lonely Person during the Holidays."
It happens in "Home Alone" when everyone but Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) rushes out of the house for a trip to Paris, leaving Kevin on his own, requiring him to fight off loneliness, fear of an odd, solitary old man who lives in his neighborhood (shoveling snow in a menacing way), and eventually two rather inept criminals intent on robbing Kevin's house.
It happens in "Elf" when Buddy (Will Farrell) gets sent packing from the North Pole to New York, where he's intent on getting to know his biological father, Walter (James Caan).
It happens in "A Christmas Carol," in which the principal character, Ebenezer Scrooge, has isolated himself from every bit of human contact.
It happens in the animated "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" when Rudolph, rejected by the other reindeer because of what they see as a physical deformity, sets off with an elf who just wants to be a dentist to find a place where they belong - only to stumble into the Island of Misfit Toys, an entire population of rejected characters seeking someone to love them.
The desire for connection is there in "White Christmas," in "Miracle on 34th Street," in "The Family Man" (with Nicolas Cage and Tea Leoni), in "Love Actually" (in which we get a whole platoon of characters trying to connect to someone during the holidays).
From here, John McClane becomes little different from other characters in Christmas films (well, OK, he's heavily armed - there's that, I'll grant you): He has to traverse difficult narrative terrain and Learn a Valuable Lesson that Earns Him His Ultimate Connection.
Rudolph has his trek across the Arctic and his standoff against the Abominable Snowman; Kevin has his persistent burglars; Buddy has his own naive foolishness that prevents his father from accepting him; Jack in "The Family Man" has his own desire for the fast cars and fast life; Scrooge has his pragmatic, mercantile heart that has to soften.
As for McClane - he has a group of ruthless, even more heavily armed terrorists bent on stealing $600 million in negotiable bearer bonds - and he has to gain acceptance of his wife as her own person, someone not simply identified by her relationship to him.
At the end, like all great Christmas movies, "Die Hard" gives us the resolution we want - just as Scrooge sits down to dinner with his impoverished (but, because he has a family, richer) clerk, Bob Cratchit, signaling that he has learned his lesson and embraced the wonder of human connection; just as Kevin gets reunited with his family (and sees his previously frightening but, as it turns out, merely lonely neighbor reunite with his own estranged son); just as little Susan Walker (a young Natalie Wood) gets both her house and new family at the end of "Miracle on 34th Street"); just as Buddy sings Christmas carols with his own new family in "Elf."
John McClane gets to go home with his wife - who signals their reconciliation by correcting McClane: After the terrorists have been vanquished, and the brand spanking new skyscraper stands in near ruins, he introduces her to a policeman on the scene as "Holly Gennaro," thereby telling her (and us) that, just as it must in a good Christmas movie, his hardened heart had softened.
"Holly McClane," she says - giving us the ideal ending to a Christmas story: All is well, the family is intact, he won't be sleeping in the guest room she'd had made up for his visit. Then, like so many Christmas movies before it, the soundtrack breaks into a classic tune of the season - this time Vaughn Monroe's song of Christmastime love, "Let it Snow."
So, "Die Hard" not a Christmas movie? Bah, humbug, I say.
Yippee-ki-yay, Santa Claus. Yippee-ki-yay.