"Die Hard's" Message for the Ages
I've seen three movies in the last week, which is an enormous number for me. Even more surprising is the fact that all three of them have been major Hollywood blockbusters. None of your "Onces" or "Waitresses" here! Well, okay... I saw those last month. But still, I've recently been inundated with "Ocean's Thirteen," "Transformers," and "Live Free of Die Hard."
Of the three, it's "Die Hard" that I can't stop thinking about. Critics have been analyzing this franchise since it started, especially because Bruce Willis' character John McClane is positioned as a bastion of Wild West American machismo. He swaggers in, makes some cocky remarks, and then uses his combination of street smarts and--most importantly--brute force to obliterate all the evil in his path.
In a July 3 story in the New York Times, Caryn James makes the excellent point that "Live Free or Die Hard" finds its terrorists in the people who would deny us access to technological information. The central villain--Thomas (Timothy Olyphant), a computer whiz who used to be highly ranked in the American government--wreaks havoc on the country by systematically undoing everything that is run by computers. He takes out the internet, the cell phone towers, and the TV satellites. Then he obliterates the computers that control water, electricity, and gas. "The loss of our information fix," James writes, "hits a very raw nerve."
James' story is an excellent starting place for examining of the film's central anxiety. In her closing paragraph, she cites its "blend of old-school action and new-school tecnhology," and her phrasing hints at the question running beneath every frame: Now that technology is undeniably in control, how is the classic image of the American man--the one who shoots first and asks questions later, the one who protects the weak with his muscles and guns--going to survive?
The film's assumption, of course, is that many Americans are worried about the emasculation of the archetypal cowboy, and as it addresses and ultimately coddles this fear, "Live Free or Die Hard" becomes a template for how the most conservative (and often reductive) American ideas about gender and power can remain firmly in place.
WARNING: I'm about to give away almost every plot point of the movie. Don't read further if you want to see it later and still be surprised.
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