Warning! There will be spoilers.
With everyone praising the movie “Skyscraper” for its portrayal of a disabled hero, I have been thinking a great deal about its obvious inspiration, “Die Hard.” Almost everyone has seen “Die Hard” and knows how amazing it is, but did you know that for its time, it was also surprisingly progressive?
For those who haven’t seen it, “Die Hard” is about the sarcastic New York cop John McClane in a troubled marriage who must save his estranged wife, Holly, and her co-workers trapped in a Los Angeles skyscraper after her office Christmas party is crashed by thieves and their clever and ruthless leader, Hans Gruber.
It features Bruce Willis as the sarcastic hero and Alan Rickman as the cunning villain. It has plenty of memorable supporting characters. It’s suspenseful and fun to watch. It is one of the only action films set around Christmas. It’s a great flick anyway, but for its time, “Die Hard” was also progressive because of how it treated its supporting cast.
Now is when I will go into spoilers, so be warned if you have not seen “Die Hard” yet.
“Die Hard” is progressive for the roles and the portrayals given to its African-American side characters, Argyle and Officer Powell, and for its different take on the main female character.
Sure, John McClane, the able-bodied Caucasian man, is the main hero, but he wouldn’t have been able to do as much as he did without the help of Argyle or Officer Powell or if Holly wasn’t as level-headed and diplomatic as she was. Because let’s face it. Even after the LAPD and the FBI get involved, John, Argyle, Officer Powell, and Holly are the only good guys in this movie who are not useless.
That is remarkable because, in the ‘80’s, African-Americans and women were featured in action movies, but they were rarely allowed to have major roles in helping the main character. “Die Hard” is one of the few exceptions as far as ‘80’s action films go. What’s even more remarkable are the characters these people portray as they perform these roles.
The most traditional role is given to Argyle, who, as McClane’s limousine driver, does nothing for most of the film but serve as comedic relief until the end when he stops one of the thieves from escaping in a truck.
Nevertheless, Argyle is progressive because of how he’s written. He’s upbeat, he’s friendly, he’s a bit too nosy, he’s very bubbly, and he has so much contagiously positive energy even though all he’s doing is passing the time in the hi-tech limousine he’s driving. Even though he’s given a small role, Argyle is written like a real person instead of a stereotypical African-American teenager, and the more I’ve read about how African-American men struggle to find diverse representations in media, the more amazing I realize this is.
Speaking of diversity, Officer Powell is even better. He gets in radio contact with John after he’s sent to check out reports of “a disturbance” at the building, and from then on, serves as his eyes on the ground and as his emotional support. The latter is remarkable to me because in media of the time and arguably now, African-American men are not usually written to be in primarily emotionally supportive roles, especially not in a friendship with a white man. But, that’s what Officer Powell does.
Character-wise, Officer Powell is even better. He and John have a lot in common. They are both smart, tough, and unpretentious policemen and family men who are often underestimated by their peers and feel burdened by their regrets. Because of their similarities, their friendship develops naturally and feels genuine. Each man sees the other as his equal, and by the end, they each grow from each other’s support. Officer Powell faces his fears to stop the final villain, and John owns up to his mistakes in his marriage with Holly. It’s a great picture of how male friendship is supposed to be, regardless of race.
Holly is a solid character with a solid role, too. At the beginning of the film, she and John are struggling in their marriage because of the success of her career. Holly is a sales executive at the Nakatomi corporation who is great at her job. She is a strong, diplomatic, and shrewd woman who negotiates with the thieves to meet her co-workers’ needs and is smart enough to keep her real last name under wraps to protect her husband. She is the damsel-in-distress, but she also represents a clever and progressive piece of social commentary for the time.
Holly represents the emerging class of career-driven women who were succeeding in formerly male-only jobs in the 1980’s corporate world. Her success threatens John’s pride, and as a result, has been causing problems in their marriage as it did in other marriages during this time. However, instead of taking the easy road and blaming the woman as other films from the ‘80’s and ‘90’s might have done, the film takes a more honest route.
Before the final confrontation between him and Hans Gruber, John acts Officer Powell to apologize to his wife for him if he doesn’t make it. He admits that he should have been supportive of her and her career, and that “she is the best thing to ever happen to a bum like me.” John’s apology is genuine, and at the end of the film, he and his wife reconcile. The message for other men with succeeding wives is the same.
In conclusion, “Die Hard” is as progressive as “Skyscraper” is, just in its own way.