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4 Crucible Lessons from Die Hard

Gary Schneeberger

December 20, 2021

Like any good Christmas movie, Die Hard ends on a festive musical note – the yuletide favorite “Let it Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” Along the way, cinematic flourishes associated with The Most Wonderful Time of the Year abound: a big holiday office party, family traveling to join each other to celebrate, characters wearing Santa hats and other clothing that spotlights the season, plastic explosives blowing off the top of a newly built skyscraper.

OK, that last one is a little out of the ordinary for a Christmas film. So is all the gunplay, the terrorists-turned-thieves looking to swipe $640 million in negotiable bearer bonds, the greatest splash of red coming not from wrapped presents but from the protagonist’s wrapped foot after he is forced to run barefoot through glass shattered by machine-gun fire. Those points explain why there are sharp divisions on social media and around the dinner table this time of year about whether Die Hard is really a Christmas movie at all.

In fact, a 2020 poll by YouGuv (not exactly Gallup, but this is not exactly electing the next president) found that only 34 percent of Americans surveyed believe the 1988 action thriller that made Bruce Willis a movie star is also a Christmas film, compared to 44 percent who aren’t buying it. No matter which side you find yourself on regarding that question, though, there is no disputing that Die Hard spotlights insights into moving beyond setbacks and failures in pursuit of a life of significance.

Christmas movie? Up for debate. Crucible movie? Without a doubt.

Consider these key Crucible Leadership teachings and how you might apply them to your life the next time you watch Die Hard (even if it’s after Dec.25):

1. Crucibles often come in bunches, and even though weariness can set in, keep taking one small step toward making your vision a reality

Willis’ character, John McClane, is a New York cop visiting Los Angeles to see his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) and their two young children for the holidays. That’s crucible No. 1 – a troubled family life. But McClane hasn’t even dipped his toe into the snowbank of trials he will face.

He arrives at Nakatomi Plaza on Christmas Eve for the Nakatomi Corp.’s company party, dropped off by his chatty limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White), who agrees to hang around in case the family reunion doesn’t go so well. It doesn’t. Seeing Holly again is not hugs and kisses and “I’ve missed yous”; they squabble about why she’s now using her maiden name, Gennero – and that’s the last time they’ll talk to each other until the end of the picture because of the cavalcade of crucibles that come.

The unraveling begins when Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his henchman arrive at Nakatomi Plaza, kill the security guards and cut all communications, then kidnap and terrorize the party guests – all while John is still in the bathroom cleaning up after his flight. When he hears the gunshots, he’s barefoot (his cabin neighbor on the plane gave him the tip that to relax after air travel anxiety, he should “make fists with his toes” after landing), but he grabs his holster and weapon and runs out to see what’s going on and how he might help.

The crucibles come fast and furious after that, all rooted in McClane trying to stay alive and free the hostages Gruber and his men have taken to make it appear they want something other than all that money in the vault. As the terrorists hunt him down, every little victory runs headlong into another defeat, and our hero can’t seem to fully extricate himself from the corners he gets backed into and the tight spaces he winds up in as he tries to escape.

But here’s the relevant point to apply to our own, likely less chaotic and life-threatening crucibles: Don’t give up. And don’t try to jump to the end. Take one small step, followed by another small step, tackling the challenge right in front of you before moving on to the one behind that. String together enough of these little victories and you wind up with the big win you’re aiming at.

2. Keep your sense of humor

John McClane does not take himself too seriously – and he certainly doesn’t meet his crucibles with somber depression. He finds the humor in his plight, as deadly serious as it is. Like the gag he pulls after killing the first henchman: Sending him a down in the elevator to where Hans and Co. are holding their hostages, having plopped a Santa hat on the dead man’s head and written on his sweatshirt: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-Ho-Ho.” It’s his way of letting the black hats know there’s a white hat on the job – and it’s done with panache.

Similar dashes of humor come from his running dialogue with himself. Alone in the building, capture or death lurking around every corner, he keeps his spirits up by keeping his mood as light as possible. After realizing the first terrorist he kills will not be able to help him solve his footwear problem, he monologues incredulously, “Nine million terrorists in the world and I gotta kill one with feet smaller than my sister.” Later, while crawling through the building’s air ducts to evade his pursuers, he flips on a Zippo lighter he took from one of the other terrorists he neutralized and quips as he tries to navigate his way forward, channeling Holly: “Come out to the coast. We’ll get together, have a few laughs.”

Lines and actions like these give Die Hard a joie de vivre that helped redefine action films in the ’80s, but in the context of the plot they serve to cushion the blow of the crucibles McClane keeps suffering. We’ve all heard the phrase “laughter is the best medicine”; this is true even/especially when the sickness we’re fighting is moving beyond a crucible. The most tragic circumstances can be met with an attitude of hopeful optimism. We don’t laugh because what we’re going through is funny, but because it helps stabilize our spirits to meet the challenges – emotional and otherwise – we’ll encounter on our path to significance.

3. You need a team of fellow travelers

McClane is often painted as the lone-wolf everyman hero, but that perspective overlooks two relationships critical to his saving the day. Without Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson, the Twinkie-eating cop) and Argyle, he wouldn’t achieve his goals.

Powell’s chief role is to be his confidante and cheerleader. After a rough start to their relationship (McClane prevents him from leaving Nakatomi Plaza before becoming aware of the hostage crisis by throwing one of the terrorists he killed out a 32nd floor window and onto Powell’s police cruiser), Powell offers a sympathetic ear and actionable intelligence. They bond over their disdain for law-enforcement bureaucracy and love for their families. And when fatigue and discouragement turn McClane fatalistic, he turns to Powell to carry a message to Holly when it’s all over: “She’s heard me say ‘I love you’ a thousand times. She’s never heard me say ‘I’m sorry.’ I want you to tell her that John said he was sorry.” Powell refuses to let his new friend give in to the grief of his crucible. “You can tell her that yourself,” he replies.

Later, when McClane kills Hans during the film’s climax, we learn it’s not really the climax at all: that comes when John and Holly (have we mentioned her name is a word strongly associated with Christmas?), reunited and having rekindled their love, are heading away as the exploded building drops bearer bonds all around them. On their slow walk to happily ever after (remember, this was before the sequels when we didn’t know the full arc of their five-film romantic journey), a terrorist it seemed John had killed leaps up and points a machine gun at them, only to be stopped by Powell – who draws his revolver for the first time since he accidentally shot a kid.

And Argyle? After spending most of the movie listening to music and chatting up women on the car phone in the parking garage (which he is not even aware has been locked down), he hears a news report of the Nakatomi takeover and drives into a better position to act if given the opportunity. He finally gets that chance when the terrorists’ electronics whiz fetches the getaway car (an ambulance, actually) and Argyle stops him by ramming his vehicle with the limo.

The lessons here for us are clear. Don’t go it alone when fighting through crucibles. Confide in others. Lean on them. Take their counsel and encouragement to heart. Let them apply their abilities and expertise to help us achieve our vision. Powell saves McClane’s life. Argyle saves his significance. Which leads us to …

4. Success is great, but significance is greater

The big payoff in Die Hard is not that McClane saves the day from greedy, nattily dressed terrorists. It’s that he reunites with his wife and children, and they become a family again. Yes, as we’ve hinted at, more familial crucibles come in the sequels (John and Holly are estranged again in No. 3, he and his daughter Lucy are at loggerheads in No. 4, and he and his son Jack have some issues to work through in No. 5). But based on what we see in Die Hard II, when John has left New York to join the LAPD and support Holly in her career with the Nakatomi Corp., he was living a life on purpose in service to others – his family.

You might even say that Christmas is saved by the reconciliation of the McClanes at the end of Die Hard – just as it is saved by Scrooge’s change of heart in A Christmas Carol, by the residents of Bedford Falls bailing George Bailey out of his jam in It’s a Wonderful Life or by Rudolph with this nose so bright guiding Santa’s sleigh in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.

But, if you do come to and express that Christmas conclusion, be prepared for some dissenting opinions as you pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie.

Reflection

  • If you’re facing a crucible at the moment, what’s the first small step you can take to move beyond it? Remember: Don’t try to accomplish too much too fast. Small and steady will win the race.
  • How can you use humor to help you move beyond your crucible?
  • Do you have a team of fellow travelers to help you as you pursue a life of significance? How can you lean into their care and expertise to help you achieve your vision? If you don’t have a team, identify who you can ask to join yours.
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