Late Saturday night, following a Christmas Eve viewing of Die Hard, I posted the following to Facebook and Twitter:
Holly Gennero’s watch: metaphor for how her successful career comes at the cost of her family life. Discuss.
It was meant as a joke, a faux-literary reading of the film not to be taken seriously. Except, well… I’m starting to wonder if it’s not so faux after all.
Consider the screenplay, by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. deSouza. It’s celebrated not only for its wit and inventiveness but also for its role as one of the smartest, most richly layered action scripts ever produced. It’s a masterwork of foreshadowing, callbacks, and Chekov’s Gunning. It ranges from the obvious (Al’s “I shot a kid” speech) to the self-aware (Hans’ aside about model-building) to the sly (the only time we see Ellis consume something other than coke, it’s… Coke) to the subtle. Oh, this movie’s crammed with subtle – like the quick shot of Holly slamming her family portrait face down; we’d completely forgotten about it hours later when Hans lifts it to discover her secret. Or, even better, the long string of seemingly throwaway events that leads from the “fist with your toes” advice in the opening scene to John running across a sea of broken glass.
And then we have Holly’s wristwatch, introduced early in the film as a rather expensive present from her boss, given in thanks for her hard work. Again, we forget about it until the film’s climax, with Hans dangling from the window, clutching onto the watch, threatening to pull Holly to her death until John manages to undo the latch. It is, one can assume, just another in a long line of pay-offs whose set-ups are so cleverly placed we don’t tend to notice them until the second viewing.
My faux-literary reading began with snarky thoughts on how Hans’ death could be read entirely in terms of artistic metaphor: Hans, a figure representing greed, uses the watch, a symbol of Holly’s career, to “pull her down,” and only her husband can free her by removing the watch, rescuing her from modern life and returning her to home and family. It’s ridiculous, of course. All that’s missing here is a Christ figure. (Wait – John McClane = J.mcC!)
I wonder, though, if Stuart and/or deSouza had more intent. After all, the film is rather conservative in its politics, especially those of gender; it may feature a strong, smart woman in a key role of power (in addition to her workplace success, Holly also becomes de facto leader of the hostages and holds her own quite well when confronting Hans), but it also appears to side with John in his grumbles over Holly’s choices. The film suggests Holly as the reason for many troubles, starting with her separation from John (her move to L.A. placed her career goals above John’s). Thanks to work, she can’t even bother to be with her children on Christmas Eve, leaving them with their nanny. Her workplace at times feels cold, impersonal, even immoral – why would she leave John for this? She needs John to rescue her, not only from Hans, but from herself. The film even uses Holly finally giving her name as McClane as a reason to cheer.
So what gives? I’d like to think Die Hard is not intentionally misogynistic – rather, it uses John’s own feelings against Holly’s success to fuel several plot and character developments. The script genuinely likes Holly and wants us to root for her, not just as a damsel in distress but as a fully realized character. It even lets her get a good punch in. Any residual misguided gender views can be chalked up to the attitudes of the 80s, when a chunk of the audience would relate to John’s apprehension over women climbing the corporate ladder. The views of the film may be dated, but its intentions are good.
Now if only I could work out Agent Johnson and Agent Johnson as allegory for the duality of man…