Let’s put this silly debate to rest, once and for all. To insist that a mere action movie is actually a Christmas movie is nothing more than edgelord-y internet troll-ism at its worst. Obviously, “Die Hard” is not a Christmas movie but, rather, an action movie that just so happens to take place during Christmas. Children know this. That legions of American pundits struggle to agree with the obvious is, therefore, cause for great concern.
If they are wrong about something as easy as this, what else are they wrong about? Hmmm?
But, you might say, how can one know for sure whether a film is or isn’t a Christmas movie? Isn’t it all intensely subjective or at least inescapably fuzzy? Isn’t art “open to interpretation”? And who am I, anyway, to be telling you that some movie isn’t a Christmas movie—the Grinch? Ebenezer Scrooge?
Isn’t a movie like “Die Hard”—replete with Christmas music as part of its soundtrack, several Christmas trees and decorations, Santa hats, and references to Christmas—squarely a Christmas movie? And even if not obviously a Christmas movie, at least on the edge of being so classified?
In fact, no. It isn’t—at all.
Coming to the correct conclusion (that “Die Hard” is not a Christmas movie) will require a bit of rigorous thinking, which is a lot to ask around the holidays, but bear with me. Here’s the test we should use to discern the answer to the question, “What is a Christmas movie?” If we abstract the movie from Christmastime, does it lose its raison d’être? In other words, if we take a movie out of Christmastime, is its essence damaged to the point where the movie’s message(s) and theme(s) become unintelligible?
Using this test, we can come to common sense conclusions about what is and isn’t a Christmas movie. “Elf” and the “Santa Clause” trilogy clearly are; if they took place in July, they would make no sense, and the movies themselves would be destroyed. Setting the titles aside (a rather lowbrow, though not wholly invalid, way of classifying movies, to be fair), can one imagine “Elf” making any sense if Buddy were scurrying around a country that had no tradition of Christmas? What about if Scott Calvin just had family troubles—as so many families do—and he hadn’t killed Santa in the first “Santa Clause” movie? Then it’s most likely just a feel-good family flick with a message about coming together rather than a movie about believing in your specifically Christmas-related dreams. And a future “Saw” film set on Christmas Day? Obviously not a Christmas movie because of the reasoning just laid out but also because it’s self-evidently insane to say the date during which a movie is set is determinative of its Christmas status.
But “Die Hard”? Clearly not. If the movie happened near Halloween, or on St. Patrick’s Day, or even someplace that doesn’t celebrate Christmas at all (like Iran), the plot would not be affected in the slightest. John McClane would remain a “Yippee-ki-yay, motherf—er”-shouting, bad-guy-thwarting, gun-toting, shoeless divorcé badass.
And that’s okay. What makes “Die Hard” great is that it’s a great action movie. Nothing more, nothing less. Trying, even in a well-intentioned way, to inflate it to fill a role it plainly wasn’t meant to fill only cheapens the film. Not everything great has to be tied to other great things (like Christmas); it’s more than fine for them to be separate. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
“Die Hard” is just an action movie that (1) happens to be set around Christmas and/or (2) has some incidental Christmas trappings.
Further, it seems extremely likely that the genre “action” is mutually exclusive of the thematic principle “Christmas.” Can anyone name another “action” movie that can even remotely claim the modifier “Christmas” and so be dubbed a “Christmas action movie”? Any examples seem to be so few and far between (and probably are also horrendously bad as cinema if they do exist) that exceptions would prove the rule: We see so few “Christmas action movies” that it’s probable that they’re an in-principle impossibility.
Don’t shoot the messenger on that one; blame the nature of Christmas and the feelings and sentiments it evokes: feelings of welcome, love, and humanity’s future redemption by the sacrifice of the Incarnate Son of God. Say what you will about “Die Hard,” but the only way to bill it as a Christmas movie is to offer strained, esoteric interpretations that could, if applied freely, transform even the most superficial romcoms into deep works of eternal import.
For an example of such a clever, and totally unwarranted, interpretation, a friend of mine noted recently:
[“Die Hard” is a] Christmas movie, but not just because RUN DMC’s hit plays in the background. Nakatomi Plaza is Israel, teeming with sinners. John McClane is the redeemer—his appearance out of nowhere—obvious allusion to a virgin birth—surprises Hans Gruber—obvious stand in for Herod—and provokes a murderous hunt for the McClane. McClane then redeems the hostages in the penthouse[,] casting Gruber into a herd of swine[,] sending them running off the edge of Nakatomi Plaza.
I appreciate the effort, but that’s too clever by half. Similar interpretive moves would transmogrify “The Emoji Movie” into something akin to Dante’s “Inferno.” Accepting such “deep” readings of movies leaves us open to seeing sublimity where there is only many, many bullets and lots of swearing—and no real reason to think otherwise.
As the saying goes, “Let’s be open-minded—but not so open-minded that our brains fall out of our heads!” That goes doubly when Bruce Willis himself—the star of the film!—is on record as saying that “‘Die Hard’ is not a Christmas movie!” (And triply so when Bill Kristol, whose punditry batting average is atrocious, disagrees with both Willis and “the masses.”)
So, go ahead and raise a glass of eggnog to “Die Hard.” I would never say that watching a non-Christmas movie during Christmas should be off-limits. But we should all be mature enough to recognize when a film clearly isn’t one.
What we can do, however, is join Justice Potter Stewart, who in discussing how to define pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) famously wrote, “I know it when I see it.” We all know (even if it’s only deep, deep down) a Christmas movie when we see one, and “Die Hard” ain’t one.
No amount of “nerd takes” will change that obvious truth.
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Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox