The other day, BuzzFeed noted the phenomenon whereby more and more people are saying Die Hard is their “favorite Christmas movie.” But though they mocked the pervasiveness of this notion, they failed to explain why the designation is dubious.
First, we can probably concede this is a very good action movie (and we have probably forgotten how fresh and original it was when it first debuted). Additionally, we can concede that the setting of the film does take place at Christmastime (but, for the record, so does Lethal Weapon).
And there is the fact that John McClane (Bruce Willis) is attempting to reconcile with his wife (before terrorists take over her office building.) One could certainly suppose that a story about reconnecting with one’s family is appropriate for the season.
You can’t blame them for trying. Films that earn the “holiday classic” label become timeless. We trot them out every year as if it’s some sort of sacred family tradition — as if watching Bruce Willis shoot bad guys is tantamount to singing O Tannenbaum around the family hearth. In this regard, the film Die Hard has earned its title. It’s not going away any time soon.
Of course, this traditionalist argument could be used to debunk the annual viewing of almost any Christmas movie. The odds are, more families will gather around the television set than will attend a Christmas Even candlelight service this year. So without casting aspersions on Hollywood, in general, it strikes me that there are two simple tests to determine whether or not a film is actually worthy of being called a Christmas movie. And on both counts, Die Hard fails:
1). The holidays must be an integral part of the storyline. This is sort of like defining pornography — you know it when you see it. But some films use the trappings of Christmas merely as a backdrop or a prop. Die Hard is a terrific film, and it certainly benefits from the music and imagery of the holiday season. But (like Lethal Weapon) this film would have worked without that conceit. John McClane could have just as easily have headed out to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving — or spring break. To be sure, Christmas creates a nice ambiance, but isn’t a vital part of this story.
2). The film should be released at Christmastime. One could probably overlook the first concern if the movie had been sold as a Christmas movie. Just like when we interpret the Constitution, it’s important to look at the original intent. And it’s interesting to note that Die Hard was released on July 14, 1988 — right in the middle of a very hot summer. There was no attempt to label it a holiday film. And it would be revisionist history to suggest otherwise. Compare that to It’s a Wonderful Life (December 25, 1946), or even Love Actually (November 6, 2003.)
One could also argue that there should be some sort of lesson derived from the film which is appropriate to the season. But that’s a test few modern films (Home Alone, Love Actually, etc.) could pass. Expecting this would probably constitute asking for too much.
But it isn’t asking to much to suggest that a Christmas movie must really be a Christmas movie in order to be called a Christmas movie. And though Die Hard is a lot of things, a Christmas movie ain’t one of them.
UPDATE: Film critic John Hanlon and I debate this subject. Listen here.