Die Hard

Die Hard

What’s in a Name?

The thieves aren’t the bad guys. The media is. Or are they? Let’s name names.

David Thomas

In the summer of 1989, Twentieth Century Fox released Die Hard, a film in which the media, for the first time since the disaster films of the seventies, reprised its role as meddlesome and opportunistic antagonists. To understand the nature of the threat posed by the media here—and the reason the producers chose to portray them so—it is important to understand the value placed on names in the film.

It’s all who you know

Knowing names moves the plot along in Die Hard. Names locate people. Argyle holds up a sign that says “McClane” so that John McClane can find him and take the limo Argyle drives to the Nakatomi building. John types the name “Gennero” into the Nakatomi computer to locate Holly on the 30th floor. When the thieves first seize the 30th floor they look for Takagi, but they only know his name, not what he looks like. He gives himself away by saying “I am Takagi.” This image of matching names to faces recurs throughout the film, typically with negative results (being identified in this case helps get Takagi killed). The name “Takagi” is also important because part of it is one of the code keys that opens the vault. John writes the names of the thieves on his arm and uses the information later in an attempt to intimidate them by broadcasting their names over the CB waves. Ellis reveals John’s full name to Hans in an attempt to locate him. This ultimately leads to Thornberg’s finding John’s children, which leads to Hans finding out Holly’s relationship to John.

As explicitly with Takagi, names also serve as codes in this film. False names conceal and obscure intentions. The thieves go by the collective name “terrorists,” which conceals their economic motives. The alias is crucial to Hans’ plans: for the vault to open, the FBI must do what they typically do “in response to a terrorist incident.” Holly goes by the name “Gennero” at first to protect her job and later to protect John and herself. John goes by the name “Roy” to conceal from the thieves his motivation to save his wife. Hans, confronted by John, dons an American accent and goes by the name “Bill Clay” to conceal his motivation to kill John and take the detonators.

Hans, playing around, drops names. He compliments Takagi’s suit, saying, “John Philips, London . . . Rumor has it Arafat buys his there.” When he says “John Philips,” Takagi shoots him a look as the score provides a quick low note, the overall effect being as if Hans has displayed some secret, dangerous knowledge about Takagi by simply saying a name.

Other names denote, in a somewhat less obvious fashion, money. The most important names in the film are revealed in its first five minutes. The key name of the film is “Bruce Willis,” a TV star vying for movie stardom, paid $5 million (an unprecedented sum at the time) for the role. “Joel Silver” denotes huge budgets; he produced a plethora of action films throughout the eighties including the Lethal Weapon series and several Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, earning him the moniker “the Selznick of Schlock.” “Twentieth Century Fox,” the very first name we see, denotes both money and the motive to make money—as it would on this film.


Given the value of names in the film and the power they have to give things away, the worst imaginable situation in the Die Hard universe is one in which you cannot conceal your identity. This is the threat posed in the film by television media. Not only does the media give away names, it matches them with faces. At the beginning of the first news report in the film, viewed from within the studio, the first thing one hears is a list of names—“The Channel Seven News with Harvey Dent and Gail Wallace”—names promptly matched with faces.

The scene in which Hans discovers Holly’s identity works in a similar way. Hans overhears Thornberg interviewing two children and looks at the small TV screen on the desk near an overturned picture. The camera dollies in on Holly looking intently at the screen. Thornberg says, “You know your mommy and daddy are very important people.” Hans looks at Holly, matching the name “mommy” with her by the look on her face. The camera dollies in on Hans as he turns again and uncovers the picture of Holly and her family, matching Holly and John, whom he’s already seen, with “mommy and daddy.” The identification complete, he takes Holly as a hostage.

Other forms of media give away names as well. The computer John uses to locate Holly serves as a kind of interactive medium, John pressing the screen to operate the device. In talking to Takagi, Hans mentions that he’s read about him in Forbes. Ellis, who gives out John’s last name, is identified repeatedly in that scene with the newsmagazine 60 Minutes, a show that begins with a list of names and faces.

Another role the media plays, as a result of giving away names and images, is that of Hans’ plaything. In listing the “comrades-in-arms” he wants released as part of his façade of terrorist demands, he mentions members of Asian Dawn—revealing to Karl that he has read about them in Time magazine. The arrival of the news van to the scene perturbs Deputy Robinson, who proceeds to move his men in an attempt to enter the building. The move is implicitly made to look good on television but it ends up providing an opportunity for Hans to display his power. With Robinson, as John puts it, “buttfucked on national television,” he becomes that much more motivated to call in the FBI, thus playing into Hans’ hands by facilitating a necessary step in the plan.

Power politics

Besides giving away names and facilitating criminal agendas, the television media spawns the figure of Thornberg, a journalist who is a “thorn” in the side of those trying to save the hostages. Thornberg’s own agenda is political: He sees himself in a hierarchical world where getting to the top requires exposure and getting the scoop first.

Overhearing news of the emergency on a police band, he whines to his producer for a truck. The news anchor, Harvey, tells him to shut up and Thornberg retorts, distracting Harvey from his own newscast. In a rack focus shot over the shoulder of the producer, we see Harvey in the background look at Thornberg, and Thornberg in the foreground look at his producer. The shot shows the struggle for power as a struggle for the attention of the camera. First it belongs to Harvey, then Thornberg. This is an appropriate metaphor, because in the world of television news, having the attention of the camera is power.

When his cameraman captures a spectacular explosion at the scene, Thornberg says, “Tell me you got that.” On hearing the affirmative his reaction is “Eat your heart out, Channel Five.” His political struggles go beyond his own newsroom as he competes with other stations for the power of audience attention.

Thornberg uses the politics of names to talk his way into the McClane household, threatening to report Paulina—her name identifies her as foreign—to the INS. And he presents the situation at the Nakatomi building as a political one by giving it the name of terrorism, which makes him two things: wrong and playing into Hans’ hands. The one time, then, that the television media doesn’t give away a name in this movie—that is, by naming the terrorists as the thieves that they are—it propagates a dangerous deception.

Sleight of hand

Thornberg’s political preoccupations are important because they are meant to contrast with the story the film is trying to present. This story has to do with a particular type of misinterpretation of motive in the film. Many people in Die Hard are mistaken for terrorists. John is twice mistaken so—first early on when a man sees his gun on a plane and later when he’s trying to scare the hostages off of the roof. Argyle is mistaken for a terrorist by Al as his limo bursts from the garage. And, of course, Hans and his crew are mistaken for a radical political threat (although Hans was once a “real” terrorist, he is no longer political).

The point of all these misconceptions is that there are no terrorists in Die Hard. Given the environment in which the movie was made in 1989, there can’t be.

In 1980, the film Airplane! parodied and undermined the traditional threatening role of the news media in disaster films. In its world, the media affect no plot elements, and it thus depoliticized the television camera and newspaper by disempowering them. During the rest of that decade, producers—not least Joel Silver—made films (particularly action films) with overtly political content (terrorists and Vietnam vets galore) without fear of political reprisal. They felt no need to separate the movie business from the wider cultural issues that pervaded it. (The example of Rambo is actually invoked in Die Hard.) By the end of the eighties, though, a growing political backlash had Hollywood under attack for sensationalizing violence.

In 1989, then, if Die Hard were about terrorists, it might do well enough to become a casualty of the politics of the time, accused of the sensationalism for which it wants to indict television. The movie’s solution is to offer another target—to re-empower the television media in order to disempower itself in the eyes of critics (and television violence itself did soon come under fire in the emerging culture wars). In essence, the producers of Die Hard present the opposite of the façade of the thieves in the film: that of having no politics whatsoever.

The studio’s misdirection works in a fashion similar to the way the thieves work in the movie: They commit a violent act under the guise of terrorism. The guise creates interest, but it’s just a ruse. All they want is the money. They are using violence so they can one day be “sitting on a beach earning 20 percent,” as Hans puts it. Joel Silver and Twentieth Century Fox create a movie called Die Hard about terrorists who take over an American building; the trailer makes it seem political. But the bad guys aren’t really terrorists, and the producers are not political. Both just want to make money. They present violence so they can one day be sitting on a beach earning (probably a lot more than) 20 percent.

Justify my love

By portraying themselves as interested only in turning a profit, the producers attempt to depoliticize the act of moviemaking. As Ellis says, “Business is business. I use a fountain pen. You use a gun.” Joel Silver uses a phone. John McTiernan uses a camera. If movie violence is just “business,” then politics, especially those of a conservative Republican government, have no place in film and politicians should not complain about violence in film. Die Hard, in this sense, does not go so far as a film like Mississippi Burning in an attempt to justify movie violence as “telling violent stories to save lives.” Die Hard’s project looks more like an attempt to negate the question, saying that it is a political one and has no place in something that is apolitical—just business.

The idea that Thornberg’s line, “Tell me you got that,” is meant to display his opportunistic, sensationalist nature is undermined by our realization that we “got that” thanks to McTiernan’s camera. But what makes the movie camera better, the film suggests, is that it is apolitical. Yet the filmmakers break the story’s cardinal rule—revealing identities—long before the film’s television personalities have a chance to. Within the first twenty minutes we’ve learned everyone’s identities, their true motives, and their true relationships to all the other characters in the film.

The real complication is that you can’t separate politics, much less morality, from business (though many do try—Enron and Tyco, anyone?). This is why the film’s attempt to depoliticize the act of filmmaking is as much of a smokescreen as Hans’ terrorist ruse. It’s worth noting that people in the film are equally terrorized by the hostage situation whether Hans and the gang are “terrorists” or “thieves.” Whether the film’s violence is byproduct or goal is likewise irrelevant; neither case allows the producers to escape the larger cultural and political questions.

Outside the world of the film, the same companies that own the studios also own the networks. Any claim that “TV is to blame” rings hollow since all the money goes into the same coffer. Furthermore, if the way to be apolitical is to be a businessman, the film still has a moral quandary because virtually all of the true businessmen in the film (Ellis, Hans, Takagi) are either villains or, in the case of Takagi, highly suspicious.

Given all this, what are we to make of the fact that the building that gets demolished in various ways throughout the film is the then-headquarters of Twentieth Century Fox? A tacit admission of guilt? Self-flagellation? Or yet another attempt to distract the eye from the complex issues involved in making money from violent images? :::

David Thomas is an independent filmmaker in Philadelphia, PA. He attended JHU, graduating a semester before they introduced their film program (sigh). He’s written, directed, and produced two shorts—“The Least Dangerous Game” and “Attack of the Bobbleheads”—and a feature, All Night Thing. He’s very opinionated about film, as you can tell by one glance at his blog.
posted by editor ::: April 05, 2004 ::: philms :::