I love this movie. You love this movie. We all love it so much we labeled it a Christmas movie just so we could watch it every year. Killing Germans who unexpectedly come into our building just really puts us in the holiday spirit! Careful Mr. Claus!
After sitting through mandatory viewings of all the lesser Christmas movies out there (read: all of them except Christmas Vacation which is in its own separate league) I finally got around to watching Die Hard the other day, and something was a little...off. In light of certain recent current events, the movie took on a whole new tone. In fact, halfway through I started to think that it was just a police propaganda film. When it was over, I was certain of it.
Now, there's a fair share of things we partake in as a society that can be considered police propaganda when analyzed deeply (and cynically) enough. The childhood game Cops and Robbers is nothing more than early training for future criminals and enforcers of the law. Officer Friendly used to be a staple in elementary schools across the nation, forcing the image of the friendly neighborhood police officer down our young throats. The "super cop" has been a movie trope for as long as there have been movie tropes. COPS was one of the most popular tv shows ever created, and it's still running, with a whole cadre of spinoffs in which the audience views all events from the perspective of the law, thereby empathizing more directly with cops than ever before.
And then came John McClane, the everyday cop who rises to the occasion amid unbelievable danger.
John McClane, the cop who will always fight for the little guy. The ballsy cop who bucks authority and may even break the law himself sometimes, but always for the greater good.
More than simply empathizing with the cop, we are meant to personally relate to his blue-collar attitude and everyday nature. But that's not enough to make it propaganda. Successful propaganda can't be so direct, so there's many subtle attempts to convince the viewer of the infallibility of the police.
At one point, Holly's idiotic coworker Harry Ellis attempts to mediate between evil leader Hans and McClane for the return of the terrorists' detonators. McClane refuses to return them, causing Gruber to execute Ellis on the spot. The message here? Don't try to handle these situations on your own. Let the cops handle it.
Ordinary citizens aren't the only ones that should stay out of the way. The media needs to stay out of police affairs, too. The media is the go to excuse when people with authority are caught up in scandals. There are legitimate concerns about something a police officer or department has done? Blame the media for sensationalizing the story. Represented by the most punchably-faced man in cinematic history, the media in Die Hard is consistently shown as untrustworthy and we are meant to despise everything about it. Holly eventually punches the reporter in the face for revealing McCane's identity and we cheer, all because he had the nerve to do his job and report on the biggest story of the year.
Then there's the commentary about the ineptitude of federal government agencies. There is a long running trope of local cops distrusting federal agents and disliking when the federal government impedes on their jurisdiction, something we have seen play out in real life lately as well. The FBI agents (Johnson & Johnson) are arrogant and fatally incompetent. They take over the operation and are immediately blown up in their own helicopter, all because they didn't listen to McClane and his new partner, local cop Al Powell. Again, the message is to stay out of the way and let the local cops do whatever they have to do.
Of course, a more sinister message lies underneath it all: the cops will let people die for their own benefit.
McClane's questionable tactics aren't the biggest issue in this movie, though. No, that would be our buddy, the twinkie loving beat cop, former neighbor to Urkel, and only guy on McClane's side through the whole ordeal: Al, the magical black friend. Turns out, Al is on desk duty because of a little accident on the job. That accident? I'll let him tell it:
Sergeant Al Powell: What the hell you talking about, man.
John McClane: Something had to get you off the street.
Sergeant Al Powell: What's the matter? You don't think jockeying papers around a desk is a noble effort for a cop?
John McClane: No...
Sergeant Al Powell: I had an accident.
John McClane: The way you drive, I can see why. What'd you do? Run over your captains foot with the car?
Sergeant Al Powell: I shot a kid. He was 13 years old. Oh, it was dark, I couldn't see him, he had a ray gun, looked real enough. You know when you're a rookie they can teach you everything about being a cop, except how to live with a mistake. Anyway, I just couldn't bring myself to draw my gun on anyone again.
John McClane: ...Sorry man.
Son of a bitch.
How could you Mr. Winslow?
I never noticed how truly strange this scene was until now. It is meant to solidify the bond between the two cops and build sympathy for Al, but now it feels disturbingly prescient. Somber music plays while they talk, helping the audience truly feel the pain in Al's heart. He's torn up about the incident, and now he's stuck doing desk duty, too traumatized to use his gun.
A child is dead, the killer faced no charges, and we are forced to empathize with the killer. Maybe the department had to pay out a settlement to the family, but who knows? That's not important, what's important is that a good cop is stuck behind a desk unable to shoot anybody else. Forget about the dead kid, feel sorry for the poor cop.
Meanwhile, that cop is free to work and love his wife and eat his armful of fucking Twinkies.
After Hans falls to his death and McClane saves the hostages, he finally meets his new pal Killer Al in person. As they crush on each other, the giant, invincible blonde terrorist Karl busts out of the building, ready to kill everybody. Luckily, our buddy Al heroically pulls his gun and shoots him dead. He can kill again! He is a hero, and our knowledge of his tragic history turns a typical action sequence into an intensely emotional experience for the audience.
Growing up, movies like this inspire us to blindly root for cops, thinking they can do no wrong. Cops who "write their own rules" and go "above and beyond" like John McClane or Mike Lowrey are even better. Their actions may be technically illegal, but they get the job done. The ends justify the means because police always have the best interests of the community in mind. Unfortunately, the reality is that although police are important to society and are largely under-appreciated for the jobs most of them do, there is a pattern of abuse that needs to be addressed.
In the end, I'm just glad nobody shot Argyle when he busted through the gates in the limo.
It's a good thing he had a friend to vouch for him.
I Love You All (Even John McClane, Still)...Class Dismissed.