Friday, December 14, 2012

John McTiernan | Die Hard

how to live with a mistake
by Douglas Messerli
Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart (screenplay, based on the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp), John McTiernan (director) Die Hard / 1988

I never think of myself as a moviegoer even slightly interested in what is generally called “action” movies. I abhor violence, I am a firm believer of gun-control, and have never been interested in what I perceive as the macho-boy-American shoot-em-up, beat-em-up, kick-butt genres of American film-making that seems to do just fine at the box-office despite my inevitable indictments. Clint Eastwood’s early “make my day” moxie and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rustling muscle-headed Austrian accented insinuations have left me cold.

      How to explain, then, my delight in films such as John McTiernan’s Die Hard or Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One, both motion pictures which I have watched numerous times with intense pleasure. I might explain away the second as a kind of political thriller—which I may explore in another essay— but the first….? There are always exceptions when one loves movies! Perhaps even my title of this essay might explain it, “How to Live with a Mistake,” a line from the film itself.

      In fact, every single figure in this tautly written film about a seemingly “terrorist” takeover of a high rise tower in Los Angeles’ Century City, a building, Fox Plaza, I daily glimpse from the street behind my LA condominium, must ultimately ask that question, from the failed man at the center of this film, New York cop J. M. McClane (Bruce Willis), to the wizard terrorist-thief Hans Gruber (the wonderful Alan Rickman), to the Twinkie-loving, perceptive black-and-white policeman, Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), to the idiotically blind manual reading LA policeman and F.B. I. agents!

      Certainly the “story,” as I express time and again in my film essays, is of little importance. A group of pretend German terrorists takes over the 30th floor, the offices of the Japanese Nakatomi Corporation, where the staff is busy celebrating Christmas Eve, in order to steal the corporations’ 600,000 million in bonds in its safe. What does very much matter, however, are the intense details of the plot the team has hatched in order to accomplish the task, and part of the joy of this movie is the precision in which the villains employ their complex machinations as they move from simple takeover, to the involvement of local L.A. police authorities, to the appearance of F.B.I. agents—all calculated with evil relish in an attempt to capture the complex codes to the safe by, in the end, forcing the governmental agents to close down the entire electrical gridwork to the Westside Los Angeles neighborhood—on Christmas Eve nonetheless!

      Of far greater background significance is the fact that the New York policeman McClane has determined to “come home”—or at least show up at his wife’s home—for the holidays to his estranged, super-capable executive wife, Holly Gennaro-McClane (Bonnie Bedelia), whom he has, in a standard 1980s sexual stand-off, refused to comprehend as the superior income producer, preferring to remain entrenched in his New York police activities. McClane is, in short, an outsider visiting what he perceives as a very strange new world in Los Angeles—a man feeling completely incapable of fitting into that new world he encounters. But, of course, once all hell breaks loose, with the terrorists-thieves imposing themselves upon this alternative space, he feels right at home, determined to save the day, in the end, realizing through his involvement with the local authorities—particularly with the personable hometown cop. The cop, like McClane, has made a mistake: Sgt. Powell has accidentally killed a 13 year-old boy, and consequently has never been able to use a gun again.

      In fact, as I’ve mentioned, every last one of the authorities and individuals of this film share McClane’s dilemma: all are men who make ridiculous mistakes. Only he, as the film’s hero and the local former street cop get the opportunity to correct their ways. And that is, quite obviously, the center of the film’s frenetic action.

     Throughout most of this work, McClane, playing out a kind of Roy Rodgers cowboy sensibility while dressed as a barefoot, white tee-shirted Christ, becoming more and more bloodied as the scenes progress, finally redeems himself. Willis plays the role with a kind of macho sarcasm that is so endearing that you’d have to be a Grinch to hate the man. And he is, in the end, a true hero, along with his slouching beast of a limo driver, Argyle, on his way to Bethlehem. Along the way, the film shows that not only the terrorists, but local news reporters and even phone police responders are equally incompetent—none of them having been prepared for the strangers’ intrusion.

     But the truly important elements of this film have little to do with those interesting plot resonances. For at its heart McTiernan’s film is an abstract portrayal of a single man against the industrialized complex. Even the company head, Nakatomi head executive Joseph Yoshiobut Takagi (James Shigeta), shot to death early in the movie, has no control over the company computer codes nor the dark computerized controls of the spaces of the building in which his company is housed. In fact, no one—employees, the cop McClane, the local police, nor F.B.I agents—seems to comprehend the extensive limits of the world they are facing. Only the so-called terrorists have perceived the extent of the inhuman world the society has created, and they easily make use of this in their attempts to close it down and control it. What McClane must single-handedly discover is just how dark that inhuman world is and how to turn it into a situation which he might, as a single human being, take back control.

      I watched this film, this time around—I’d previously seen the film on the large screen and on television several times—on a Netflix tape played on my computer. Every time I stopped the film for a bathroom break, a glass of wine, or a telephone interruption, I came back to a scene that was hardly recognizable: a shadow of a being spread across the space of a concrete wall, an eye peering through a strange concrete structure of a horizontal slit, McClane staring down the shaft of an endless elevator well. Time and again, individuals are placed along a corner of descending steel walls, cornered against cascading electrical cables, forced to propel themselves against panels of glass. At other times McClane even uses his symbolic penis (his stolen machine gun) to pinion himself along a strap dangling, spider-like, into what seems like interminable space. Bodies are spewed from crashed-through windows. Entire floors of empty offices neatly set up in rows of computers are machine-gunned down into the glass components of their capsuled entities. As much as this is a battle of man against man, this film portrays—far more effectively—a world in which man is at war with the societal constructs he has created, a world of concrete, glass, and fiber-optics.

     The actual encounter with the enemy, McLane and his wife against the evil Gruber, is a comic one, the ridiculous “Roy Rodgers” facing off his evil opponent with an absurd Christmas greeting, his wife finally loosing Gruber’s grip so that he falls from that 30th floor into empty space. Film lore recounts that McTiernan let Rickman fall several moments before the time he was to have been released, the shock of that early abandonment clearly registered on the actor’s startled face.

     It hardly matters, for most of the film has not been just a battle of man against man, but a man against an environment he might never have expected—even in New York—a high-rise creation that has been made to operate by itself, betrayed by clever computer manipulators. In a strange sense, Die Hard is a kind of prelude to the attack of Taliban-captured planes on The World Trade Center. Everybody—the C.I.A, the F.B.I, the entire American government—had not perceived the possibility of such an immense attack; they had made a vast mistake with which we still must live today, which explains, perhaps, the three other sequels of this masterful film. For we still must wonder how to live with such mistakes.

      McClane, strangely enough, is a quite innocent hero. His only real failures was to have given up a relationship with his wife out of generational male role preoccupations. In McTiernan’s fantasy, he saves the day—and saves his relationship in the process. But in real life, the Grubers of the world—both real terrorists and Wall Street robber barons—can easily destroy our societies, particularly the society constructions which themselves seem pre-determined to destroy the world in which we live.  

Los Angeles, December 13, 2012

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