The True Meaning of Masculinity

When we first meet John McClane (Bruce Willis), hero of John McTiernan’s seminal 1988 hit Die Hard, he’s not feeling the holiday spirit, grudgingly giving in to small talk with his seatmate on a crowded flight to L.A. And so, the first things McTiernan makes sure we know about him are a, he’s a tight-lipped wiseass and b, he’s packing a sidearm. In a lot of movies, that would be plenty. But soon–thanks to a garrulous limo driver ‘cause ain’t no way John is sharing this stuff on his own–we realize he’s visiting his estranged wife and their young children for Christmas. While still married, he and wife Holly’s (Bonnie Bedelia) relationship is brittle enough that he’s not planning to spend the holiday in the same house, and if he has hopes for something else, a reconciliation with his wife, waking up down the hall from his delighted kids on Christmas morning, John ain’t saying or showing. Sarcastic, rueful, closed-off–an okay guy, funny in a mordant way, a guy to have a smoke or a beer with, but not someone who would burden you with an actual feeling. He’s traveling fairly light–his sidearm, a carry-on, and a big ‘ol stuffed bear for his kid–but Officer John McClane is still a man with a lot of undeclared baggage.

The miracle of good screenwriting, of course, is that he won’t stay that way.

When John arrives at Holly’s workplace, the Nakatomi Corporation’s impressive downtown L.A. skyscraper, most of the building is vacant, except for the 30th floor, where they’re enjoying a luxurious c-suite holiday party, complete with an orchestra playing the Brandenburg concerto, hanky panky in vacant offices, and cocaine in the executive washrooms. As a senior executive, Holly has an office on the 30th floor, and the appointments of her success dogpile John the instant he crosses the threshold, duckfacing his disapproval. In addition to her huge private office in a gorgeous floorplan based on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, this year, a grateful Nakatomi Corporation has given Holly a Rolex for Christmas, and her big, cushy office comes complete with a would-be suitor with refrigerator-white teeth, rival executive Harry Ellis (Hart Bochner). Her boss, Mr. Takagi (Joseph Shigeta), diffidently pilots John around while gently bragging on the company and Holly’s value to Nakatomi. Success, success, success. John is not happy about any of this, even less that Holly’s going by her maiden name now, and once they’re finally alone, he wastes no time starting a fight, or maybe just resuming one they’ve had on pause with a continent between them.

We know how the story goes from here. A group of European male models with lots of firepower, led by the smooth, calculating, and peerless Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his right-hand henchman Karl (Alexander Godunov) crash the party, holding Nakatomi’s executives hostage while John–the one who wasn’t on the guest list–shimmies through heating ducts, picking bad guys off one by one and trying to survive long enough to save everyone. Die Hard wasn’t only massively successful in its own right, spawning four sequels, but it became the template for a kind of action movie, the formula “Die Hard on a [blank]” selling a lot of inverted slashers-cum-action movies in the 80s and 90s. Because that is also what Die Hard is, even before it’s a Christmas movie: if Jason Voorhees were a good guy, he’d be John McClane, breaking necks and shooting faces and blowing people up in a confined space over the course of a lean, mean 132-minute running time. Sweaty, sooty, and stripped down, this is one man, his automatic rifle, and an undershirt that’s literally called a wifebeater. You cannot get more macho man than this. You cannot. Even the male pattern baldness is all about the testosterone.

Here’s the thing though. Like most action movies of the time, Die Hard ostensibly evangelizes a kind of lone gunman male hero, and to that end, absolutely nothing about John’s wisecracking tough guy attitude is a surprise. He’s a trope, a stereotype, the kind of man people like Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro seem to mean when they have moral panic pity parties about how men just aren’t manly like that anymore. Except Die Hard is actually a very good movie, and in good movies, whatever the genre, its hero/ine changes. Tough guy John McClane kills his way through a lot of threatening men with great hair over the course of the film, and you would assume this would calcify him, make him even grimmer, more sardonic, more DGAF. You would assume that Holly, overwhelmed by his heroic murder feats, would drop her ambitions and her panties to be with such a man on his terms. Maybe if Tucker Carlson wrote it. But the screenwriter adapting Die Hard from Roderick Thorp’s grim novel Nothing Lasts Forever, Jeb Stuart, was inspired by a near-death experience after a fight with his own wife. In that HOSHT moment, Stuart realized that if he died, he would never be able to apologize to her. And that’s the real point of Die Hard, not valorizing the good guy with the gun, but instead showing how this well-muscled, well-guarded manly man is nothing, has nothing, offers nothing, and is himself miserable until he does the manly thing and accepts some vulnerability.

And McClane, of course, doesn’t exist in a masculine virtues vacuum. Die Hard offers us a whole buffet of Reaganite ideas of masculinity to compare and contrast. You have the suited Wall Street types, like Ellis and Hans himself: mind over matter and money over morals, a stone-cold alpha for a capitalist world. You have Hans’ group, particularly Karl, whose bloodthirsty crusade against McClane is almost a cartoon shadow version of John’s own anger. (Indeed, since Karl is avenging his brother, John’s first, accidental kill in the film, Karl could absolutely be a traditional action hero in his own right.) These guys are cold, trained brutes with big guns and no sympathy for the hostages; terrorists to some, soldiers to others. Of course, they have a wisecracking computer hacker guy, Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.), and while he may not be beefy, he’s just as ruthless as his colleagues, kicking a murdered security guy out of his chair as he hunt and pecks along to the “Ode to Joy.” You have the LAPD, mostly portrayed as buffoonish cannon fodder for Hans’ group, but unlistening, macho guys bound by procedure even in their best moments, and for their part, the FBI agents come off even worse, excitedly planning a double-cross ambush on the roof like kids playing G.I. Joe. They high-five and dismiss the civilian cost, which is fine, since they’re going to go down in a fireball themselves. “Just like Saigon” indeed, Agent Johnson.* And lest we forget, there’s the crusading reporter (William Atherton) who cares nothing for the human cost, just getting the exclusive.

In this world of unfeeling action heroes and corporate raiders, there are exceptions though, and these men help John toward his own epiphany as assuredly as Dickens’ Christmas ghosts. First, there’s Argyle (De’voreaux White), the limo driver who picks John up at the airport and pumps him for exposition in the film’s first scenes. Argyle doesn’t get a ton of development, but I can’t just skate past him, because small as his role is, he is a positive influence on John. Young, eager, a little bit of a hustler, Argyle is also an empathetic guy who uses humor not simply to deflect like John would, but to crack open John’s scary New York cop carapace and let some vulnerability shine out. Argyle isn’t judgmental. Argyle gets it. He’s seen this movie before. Correctly guessing how delicate John’s relationship is with Holly, he even offers to wait in the parking garage to see whether John will be staying with his wife or need a ride to a hotel. It’s a plot point, sure, but it’s also a kind act that has less to do with his tip than simple caring and generosity, and it’s a good precedent for John that being vulnerable cost him nothing.

Another small role I can’t entirely elide is Takagi. Takagi has, in John’s eyes anyway, taken his wife away with this whirlwind career, but in the brief time we spend with him, Takagi strikes a warm, almost ingratiating tone with the corporate cuckolded husband. He was the one who sent the limo for Mr. Broody New York Cop, in fact. Sure, Takagi’s anxious to brag on Holly’s skill, but carefully, without challenging John, and you can see his discomfort when Ellis insists on rubbing John’s face in Holly’s Rolex. He doesn’t, spoiler alert, live long enough to challenge many norms, but he’s clearly a fatherly figure here, and not a stern, standoffish one. He cares about Holly’s relationship with her husband on a personal level. Sending a limo to collect the estranged husband of one of your executives isn’t the act of just a boss.

Then there’s Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). Al is the heart of this film. Dragged into events after John’s emergency call summons his patrol car for a drive-by, Al stays in near-constant contact with John over CB radios for the rest of the film, the angel on his shoulder. He’s unique among the LAPD, too, because he not only believes John at face value, he correctly assesses the nature of the threat from Hans’ group and appreciates how standard tactics won’t work. He also does a lot of John’s proxy head-butting with the insipid, careerist deputy in charge, Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason), and you know Dwayne’s no help because he introduces himself with his middle initial. Al, like Argyle, gets it. He knows that John is alone, demoralized, and terrified behind the wisecracking bravado. All on his own and in defiance of his superior, he provides John information and solace and, if you will forgive the term, a safe space–or as safe as any space can be when Hans can listen in–even confessing the tragic backstory that put him on desk duty years before. They call it a memento mori when you’re reminded of how near death is as a spur to change your life, like the last act of A Christmas Carol or an empty refrigerator box flying off the back of a truck at Jeb Stuart on the freeway, but Al’s story underlines how it doesn’t have to be your near-death that gives you a new perspective. “I shot a kid,” Al confesses, forcing John to contemplate living with irreparable guilt and that, unlike Al, he still has a chance to make what’s wrong in his life right. 

While Al is the most crucial supporting character in the film, Argyle and Takagi complete a subliminal picture for us. They’re the only unimpeachably good guys in the movie besides John. I mean, Dwayne is Breakfast Club principalling all over the proceedings; Ellis would probably join Hans if Hans would have him. Al, Argyle, and Takagi are also the only male characters in the movie who aren’t primarily motivated by either anger or greed. It’s an action movie, so we don’t get tons of character development, but that only makes this more important to point out. The only good guys are the supportive and open guys.

In Die Hard, John, like so much Scrooge, is looking 30 floors down on a call to redemption. By the time Al reveals the skeleton in his own closet, John is broken and bleeding and considering what he will regret most if he loses his life or Holly’s or both. He may be able to kill his way out of Nakatomi Tower, but he won’t be able to kill his way out of the strife that brought him and all his baggage there. Maybe some of that baggage got burned away with the explosion up the elevator shaft because it’s that understanding that brings him to confide in Al, asking him to keep a message for his wife in the event he doesn’t make it out:

Tell her that she’s the best thing that ever happened to a bum like me. She’s heard me say “I love you” a thousand times. She never heard me say “I’m sorry”. I want you to tell her that, Al. Tell her that John said that he was sorry.

John McClane does get tougher by the end of the film, but only because by the end of the film, he gets softer. By letting his guard down and apologizing to his wife, he learns the true meaning of–maybe not Christmas, but certainly nontoxic masculinity. There’s no masculine virtue in him shrinking behind his pride, abdicating fatherhood in a cross-country sulk, when his wife is successful. There’s nothing heroic about making someone take your name. In the end, John passes the test, transcending his macho b.s. to become what I believe the Shapiros, et al, would call a cuck. But that’s his journey. That’s the net effect of so much shooting and fighting for so long that he is fully harrowed, bloody and down to one bullet at the end of separate solo standoffs with Karl and Hans, each of them an avatar of so many purportedly “alpha” characteristics. These are men that kill and take and, most of all, succeed. What does John McClane do? 

John McClane mans up and does the hard thing, admitting his mistakes and letting go of his toxic baggage. It’s a mature man (and a mature screenplay) that realizes an apology is sometimes the deepest act of love possible. It is not lost on me that when Hans falls to his death, officially starting Christmas in many households, it’s because John looses his hold on Holly’s Rolex. Symbolically, you could read that as John throwing away her achievements, her career, etc. to end the threat to their marriage. You could. But if you look at Hans as a shadow for John himself, you could also interpret this moment as John willfully reaching down and letting go of his resentment of Holly’s career, the preoccupation with status and material success that so many people want to correlate with masculine achievement in our society, and sending that maladaptive part of him straight to the concrete.

Merry Christmas!

*Penis jokes! Both the FBI agents are named Johnson–Agent Johnson and Special Agent Johnson, but in the script, they are identified as Big Johnson and Little Johnson. It’s worth pointing out, too, that the most memorable and plot-consequential injury John suffers are the wounds to his bare feet from walking on broken glass. You know what they say about a man with big feet. (Note that John can’t wear Karl’s brother’s shoes because they’re too small.) Now imagine that they’re bleeding big feet. Also, the terrible reporter is named, of course, Dick Thornburg.

I am ignoring the character’s further development in later films, I will grant you. 

For more on toxic masculinity and the moral panic about so-called traditional masculinity in conservative circles, please enjoy this Dr. Nerdlove article, which helped inspire this month’s ramble.


Angela is writing about Die Hard in December for no particular reason.

2 replies »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s