By Daniel Smith-Rowsey
Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, but the very next day, Public Policy Polling released a crucial, world-changing poll that indicated 62% of Americans don’t feel that Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Thank baby Jesus that the internet didn’t leave it at that; Entertainment Weekly and Mediaite offered passionate defenses of the film as a Christmas film…in the listicle manner that they do everything. In this, they were reaffirming a much older meme, which looks like this:
Perhaps the naysayers were comforted by this list from boxofficemojo, which claims that there’s a subgenre of films categorized as – yes this is the whole name – “Christmas – Settting Only: Movies Set During the Holiday But Not About It.” Oh, B.O. Mojo, ho ho ho! Time to check for tinsel in your head, BOys. Home Alone not meant to be a Christmas movie? Gremlins? Love Actually?
Here’s what you need to know that EW and Mediaite don’t tell you: Joel Silver is the true auteur of Die Hard. We don’t always think of producers that way, but sometimes we do: Gone with the Wind is more of a David O. Selznick movie than it is anyone else’s, and The Nightmare Before Christmas similarly belongs to Tim Burton. If John McTiernan, the credited director of Die Hard, is so great, why have almost none of his successive films been half as good?
Silver is the one who found an obscure 1979 novel by Roderick Thorp called “Nothing Lasts Forever” (I’ve read it), about a sexagenarian World War II vet (yes) trying to save his adult daughter from a building full of terrorists. Silver changed John McClane into a thirty-something man whose career clearly pales before his wife’s, and that’s only the beginning of how contemporary he made the story. Silver also made the building into Nakatomi Plaza, and turned the production design into an almost post-modern array of Japanese-flavored hanging waterfalls, air-suspended staircases, sleek surfaces, and, uh, interior Venetian blinds.
And yes, Silver moved the story to Christmas Eve and shoehorned in the Christmas elements.
Silver had already made one classic Christmas action movie with Lethal Weapon. He just wasn’t done blending the sounds of jingle bells and explosions. Is it Scroogey to suggest that in the mid-80s, Silver looked around at the burgeoning VHS video market and sudden rise of 100 cable channels and thought, hey, if I can put just enough Christmas in one of these things, I can get some holiday cashola out of future rentals? Not Scroogey at all.
If Die Hard has aged a little better than Lethal Weapon (many years ago, in a separate article, Entertainment Weekly named Die Hard the best action movie ever), that’s partly because Silver made Lethal Weapon with the paint-by-numbers boys at Warner Bros., but Silver took Die Hard to Fox, and more specifically the design team that had just finished Aliens (1986). The pipes, the steam, the air ducts, the feeling of raging against industrial corporate priorities…oh yeah, that’s the good stuff. And what better reminder that there’s a beating human heart below all that corporate flimflam than regular reminders of the Christmas holiday itself? Christmas as we know it is also a set of twisted corporate priorities that, every year around Christmas Eve, we manage to twist into something emotionally true. Kind of like John McClane does when he kills 12 terrorists to get his wife back.
One of the reasons Die Hard’s Christmas-movie status remains shaky is that there is no book of Christmas movies. Yep, scholars have books on horror, on sci-fi, on romantic comedies, on a lot of other genres…but nothing yet to define the Christmas film. I smell a pine-green opportunity here for this site’s Santa Claus, Robin Write.
Of course, 2016 marks our first Christmas without Alan Rickman, making his character’s Die Hard death a somewhat bitter irony. Severus Snape never had such an ignominious conclusion. I choose to remember the best debut film performance since Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953). I choose to be happy that Rickman’s brilliant work, so central to the greatness of Die Hard, is frozen in celluloid for all time, ready at any time to bring Rickman back from the dead.
It’s Christmas, Theo. It is the time of miracles.