Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard-- or Live Hard and Die Free?

I have always liked Bruce Willis. He was great in the 80s in the big TV hit series Moonlighting with Cybil Shepherd. In fact, he began the 'Die Hard' series in the middle of the Moonlighting show because Cybil became pregnant and they had to take a little hiatus. It was fortunate for Bruce, because he was able to successfully make the transition to the big screen right off the bat as 'Die Hard' I was a big hit-- a lot of bang for the buck. Bruce branched out to various other roles, many of them military or militant, but he also did charming films like 'The Fifth Element' which reprised some of his wry wit seen on Moonlighting. 'Live Free or Die Hard' is not in that vein, but in my estimation it is the best of the Die Hard films-- by far. But now at 52, bald, but still buff, we are regaled with one more episode in the McClane saga.

The subject of this movie is cyber-terrorism-- a timely subject indeed. The bad guy is named Gabriel, only he is an avenging angel rather than a protecting one, who once worked for the Federal Government as a Geek supreme, but the government would not listen to him when he told them the whole computer network running the nation could be hacked into and messed with. Indeed, they fired him for a 'stunt' namely breaking into an Oval Office meeting and showing them how on his laptop he could personally shut down the whole Norad Defense system.

In other words, the movie is predicated on the revenge motive, but it is also about getting rich quick, and as it turns out Gabriel, unlike most hackers, is prepared to actually physically kill whoever tries to get in his way. Enter John McClane, and his rebellious daughter, and a computer hacker named Matthew Farrell, who has unwittingly been helping Gabriel prepare to do his dirty work. Farrell is played quite nicely by the Keanu Reeves look alike Justin Long-- the Apple guy. You know-- the one who does all those commercials with another guy who plays a PC. He's the cool one. Only Farrell is far more geek-like than Gabriel-- he wouldn't physically harm a fly, or so he thought before he ran into John McClane.

Several things you need to know about this movie-- its PG 13, but it has an awful lot of violence for a PG-13 film, so I don't advise taking the younger kids to this film during this holiday, not least because it continues the mythical premise that Americans have so long bought into-- we can solve all our problems by just blowing away the bad guys.

Unfortunately this attitude fails to deal with the fallen human nature that all of us struggle with, stigmatizing a particularly virulent and violent form of sinner as the root cause of all our troubles. This is what the psychologists call 'projection'-- the projecting of all the evils and problems onto a scapegoat, which then relieves us of having to be introspective and ask whether or not we might as well be the source of many of humankind's woes. Of course Gabriel in this movie certainly is wicked, and deserving of punishment not doubt. But what of the criminal ignorance and negligence of the government who ignored his warning about security breaches, having already had him build their NRA security system, and then never bothered to change it once he was fired? There is more than enough blame to go around when major crises hit, like the one depicted in this film. But I digress.

Another thing you need to know is that the second major premise of this movie is that McClane is indeed like the old Timex watch-- he takes many a licking but keeps on ticking. He should have been dead about twenty times in this movie, and it gets to the point of absurdity at several junctures. No mere mortal just gets up and walks away after falling several stories from a building, or being in multiple huge car crashes. Suspending your disbelief is a pre-requisite to watching this film.

And this brings up an important point. This movie feeds the Rambo spirit of many Americans, who would like nothing better than to be John McClane and personally eliminate those who bewitch, bother, and bewilder them. The cheers in the theater for McClane in this movie were understandable but chilling none the less. Apparently we would really like to be this guy-- mowing down the bad guys, and yet walking away with minor injuries and no repercussions. But there is another message in this movie.

The message is that we need the geeks of this world to help us save the world. Mere guts and determination are not enough. Even in this movie, John McClane is not enough to save the world-- Matthew Farrell in fact is crucial at various points to making it happen. So now we are led to believe that with enough guts and computer savvy and skills we can save ourselves from our enemies. The bad guys are smart, but with enough courage, macho, and geekiness we can out wit them. But is it so?

There are some spectacular stunts and special effects in this movie-- not the least of which is watching a car hurtling through the air taking down a chopper, because McClane ran out of bullets. There is also the pathos of McClane's daughter Lucy being caught in the web of the evil genius Gabriel. And there is the bonding between Farrell and McClane as the movie goes on. What I am telling you is that the movie is not just all non-stop action and special effects and stunts. There is a little bit of character development, and this actually helps draw the audience in and help them stay on the roller coaster ride of this film, which is intense and in spots suspensful, to say the least.

Movies of these kinds, disaster movies, serve as cinematic apocalyptic warnings-- shouting 'what if.....'. But the questions they raise, are how could we better prepare for wickedness let loose on humankind? If this movie has a subliminal message it would seem to be that we need to listen to one another, to not remain arrogant and ignorant, and to take good advice and wisdom where ever it can be found-- even on the lips of a scruffy computer geek called Warlock who lives with a doomsday mentality and believes in governmental conspiracy theories on a grand scale ('Big Brother is out to get you').

Perhaps in the end this movie should have been entitled 'Live Hard, and Die Free'. In other words, be prepared to fight and kill for what you really most value. That is the ethic McClane actually embodies. Nowhere does anyone in films like this ever ask the question-- if I use the same weapons, the same tactics, the same brutality, the same 'I am above the law' attitude, and the same violence to achieve my ends and aims (however noble in principle), haven't I just become just like what I despise??? What is the real difference between McClane and Gabriel-- who both get off on violence? While the movie clearly intimates there is a good guy and a bad guy in this film, their respective modus operandi are notably the same and so it becomes hard to tell the difference at least when it comes to means, if not ends.

It has been said in our utilitarian age that 'the ends justify the means'. I disagree. Some ends are not ever best served by killing. Indeed killing violates the ends of God-- including truth, right, love, compassion, self-sacrifice, peace and various other Gospel principles. But then our culture has long been built on venerating the warrior not the saint, King David, not King Jesus.

Is it an accident that in the trailers for this movie we have the slogan'' In McClane we Trust"? I think not. Because the truth is, we do trust the warrior more than we trust the saint, we do trust our own military might and intelligence far more than we trust God.

After all what do we celebrate on the 4th of July?-- the founding of a nation on the basis of revolutionary actions taken against the established legitimate authorities from Britain. And how in the world does that comport with what Rom. 13 or 1 Peter has to say about respecting and honoring the governing authorities, even when the references in those texts are to Emperors who did not run democracies? Well, it doesn't comport with it, and those are the cold hard Biblical facts.

Think on these things.


Neil said...

Excellent analysis. My wife and I also had the same thoughts about suspending your disbelief!

One pro-life thought kept coming to mind for me. Consider how this guy would do anything - anything! - to save his daughter. If you ask the average dad if he'd risk his life if his kids were in danger the answer would probably be, "Yes."

Yet how many guys rush to pay a perfect stranger to kill their unborn children? And how many Christians support that? How low have we sunk when we've repressed our natural protective instincts down so far?

Jim said...

Hi Ben,

I saw the movie and I must say, your analysis is right on the mark. Are you sure you're not secretly a movie reviewer for the Times?


Ben Witherington said...

No, not for the Times, but I gather an Aussie journal nabs my reviews and reprints them down under.


preacherman said...

Great post.
You really know how to make people think and make pop-culture relavent to Christianity. I like that about your blog. Keep up the great work brother. I love all the Die Hard movies. It gets on my wife's nerves when I refer to Die Hard as a Christmas movie. I think it's great. :-)

David Johnson said...

Quite a trenchant analysis of the roots of society's love of "redemptive violence." I noticed especially your words about McClane, the "good guy," using the same weapons and means as the "bad guy" to accomplish his ends. "Fighting fire with fire" is the most ridiculous thing, yet it is such a perniciously potent and permeating (P is such a good letter, don't you think?) idea that the toughest decision I have ever made was that I must learn to fight fire with water.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi David:
Yes indeed, fighting fire with fire ends up with more fire, more people getting burned, more people dying. The proper way to fight fire, is with water as you say.

Happy Fourth,


Anonymous said...

So if there were no McClane then how would one propose to stop the bad guy?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Rhonda

Take away his computer :)


Anonymous said...

Yes, indeed. But, he had a lot of them. He even wrecked his very own. I was thinking...dude that was a really nice desktop computer!
Oh well...his henchmen will boot up another one I suppose.

Dan said...

Man, I don't have nearly the mental abbility to disect movies as you do which is much appreciated.

I do wonder though, isn't the Die Hard franchise based completely on the fact that it is a non-stop action movie with out too much depth in which the hero does the completely impossible (avoid death repeatedly) to stop (aka kill) the bad guy?

Though I appreciated your review, I read it and thought, "yep, that's a Die Hard movie."

And again, so as not to sound like I'm being critical, I do really appreciate your reviews. Keep writing them please.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't taking away the "bad guys" computer be a violation of his rights to private property?

oh ok...it's just a movie.

J. K. Jones said...

It was a good movie. I hope you did not give away to much of the plot.

“Nowhere does anyone in films like this ever ask the question-- if I use the same weapons, the same tactics, the same brutality, the same 'I am above the law' attitude, and the same violence to achieve my ends and aims (however noble in principle), haven't I just become just like what I despise???”

Please do not take the easy way out on the metaphysics of violence. There is a time and a place for the good guys to be effective in the application of force to stop evil. Two examples: in the cause of a just war nobly fought and in the lawful defense of innocent life. These activities must be carried out in the strength of the One who gives the power to bend a bow of bronze.

The God of Abraham, Joshua, King David and others finds a place for violence in the cause of good. Jesus Himself will return not with peace, but with a sword.

Make room in your theology for Christians to be soldiers and police officers. These people defend us.

Falantedios said...

"The cause of a just war nobly fought" is sheer Enlightenment optimism. No war ever fought by humans was fought nobly.

"The lawful defense of innocent life" is an interesting concept, fraught with temptation. Soldiers and police officers in reality do not always defend us, do they?

The God of King David also punished David for enjoying his bloody work too much. The God of King David is quite wise enough to know who deserves death and who deserves life. Do you and I possess that level of understanding?

The God of King David also said, "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword."

Things aren't quite as simple as you would like. Not all soldiering is Christian work. Maybe not all policing either. What Dr. Witherington is pointing out is the need to ask the hard questions of ourselves, and to answer them honestly.

in HIS love,
Nick Gill
Frankfort, KY

Rev. Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I think its interesting to ask the question (assuming one believes in a Just War theory): "Does the American Revolution qualify as a Just War?" Throwing off the shackles of monarchist oppression sounds nice and all (to those of us who have been raised here) - but as I understand it, the Colonists actually enjoyed the highest collective standards of living in the whole of the British Empire and lower taxes than their brethren back in the old country. Could it be that enthusiasm for the latest Enlightenment ideology combined with good old fashioned greed (we've certainly done alright for ourselves, haven't we?) had as much to do with it than the defense of noble and godly principle? Just a question I've been tossing over for a couple of years.

Friar said...

There's an exchange in which the young hacker Willis protects marvels at how Willis fights and slays the bad guys and whatnot, kind of wistfully. Willis tells him what his heroism earned him -- a broken marriage, a lot of bumps and bruises and a daughter who's ready to disown him.

Why do you do it, then, the hacker asks.

"Because there's no one else."

I wonder if I had lived in Jesus' day and he'd told me what being the Messiah was going to entail, and I'd naturally asked why he was going to do it, if his response would have been similar.

Or maybe I'm over-reading when I should be munchin' popcorn.

Ben Witherington said...

This has turned into an excellent discussion. I do not subscribe to just war theory for the very good reason that as General Mark Clark once said "all war is hell", and I certainly do not subscribe to justifiable hell being unleashed on the earth. I think you can make a reasonable case that some wars are more justifiable or less wicked than others, but I don't honestly think there is such a thing as a 'just war'.

What is striking to me about the NT, and how it differs from the OT on this kind of issue is that justice is over and over again left in the hands of God. We are repeatedly warned as Christians NOT to avenge the wrong done to us for "vengeance in mine says the Lord..." The whole book of Revelation is one big argument and indeed reassurance that judgment is and should be left in God's hands and he will repay. The job of Christians according to Revelation is to be prepared to overcome by being martyred!! The overcomers are those who die for their faith without giving up that faith, like Antipas.

As Nick says, I am suggesting we need to do the hard work of thinking through these issues from a Christian point of view, and not just react instinctively.

I was watching an MSNBC segment a few minutes ago in which a 72 year old man beats up a 27 year old man who was trying to steal his wallet. He is being hailed as a hero and was on the NBC morning show today. Turns out he was a former Marine and a Gold Gloves boxer. The young thief picked the wrong guy to pickpocket.

The reaction to this episode gives us a chance to think, what would be a correct Christian response. For example, suppose the man had said "if you need money that desperately, then by all means let me give you the money that is in my wallet." Would this response have been lauded in the same way? I doubt it, but it reminded me of Paul's warning not to respond to a wrong with another wrong. Indeed he says in Romans-- why not rather be wronged, why not allow yourself to be defrauded?

Most Americans would not consider that a possible response at all. The question is why not? Well, because protecting one's property is seen as justifiable in all circumstances because STUFF is so darn important to us. Indeed, protecting our STUFF is said to justify shooting people in this country.

This my friends, is not a Biblical ethic at all. It's just plain fallen human nature justifying itself, and in some cases its just the natural default mechanism of selfishness.

I could say more, but this is enough to keep the conversation hopping along.


J. K. Jones said...

Thanks for your reactions to my comment. I do not believe that all wars are justified, that everyone who fights to defend their property is correct to do so, or that every way to fight a war is right.

War is justified when it is expressly commanded by God (some examples: Gen.14:13-24; Jos. 6:17, 8:1-25, and others; Jud. 4:6, 6:14; 1 Kings 18:36-40; Rev. 19:11-21). God does nothing inconsistent with His justice (Genesis 18:25 ff.), and that includes what He commands His followers to do.

God’s justice does not change in the New Testament. Also, Luke 3:14 gives no indication that a soldier cannot serve honorably.

Everyone always asks about the American Revolution. I am not sure. I just don’t know. I hope I never have to make a call like that.

Vietnam? It was justified. Communist aggression was stopped by the consistent resistance of America no matter which party was in power or who was president. They were out to get us and had expressly said so.

Iraq and / or Afghanistan? Justified only insofar as to stop those countries from aiding and abetting terrorism. To fail to resist terrorism is to enable atrocities.

It is wrong to fight in a war we do not believe is justified. I have no respect for a person who went to war because, “It’s my country right or wrong.” There is a strong moral reason for conscientious objector status sometimes.

As an individual, I would act with violence to stop someone from killing if I believed they were about to. I would act only to stop, not necessarily to kill. I would act with all of my ability, knowledge, and strength using any means at my disposal without any hesitation with only the force needed to stop the aggression. If the person I stopped died in the process, I would not feel guilty.

I would also consider it a moral duty to flee or talk my way out of it or otherwise avoid the situation if at all possible. I would not act violently to defend my “honor” (read: pride) when insulted.

I would not act violently to defend my property. That is rightly identified above by BW3 as greed. An exception might be water, food, shelter, etc. owned my me that happened to be literally keeping myself or my family alive. I am so far from this situation and I cannot see it arising. (We have so much to be thankful for!)

Violence can never be justified as a means to advance God’s kingdom on the earth (Luke 9:54-56, 2 Cor. 10:3). We cannot force people into God’s kingdom.

The thing to do is witness. Sharing the gospel and watching God change lives as a result is the best way to avoid all types of violence, including terrorism!! We are responsible to reach out to violent criminals and terrorists with God’s love. Missionaries Need our support as well. If we do not, we may well find ourselves or our friends and families the victims of violence.

Culture Dove said...

I find it interesting how some can separate individual ethics from national ethics. If it is wrong for the individual how can it not also be wrong for the nation?

It is dangerous exegesis to use the OT to justify the action of a nation, aside, possibly, of Israel. Jesus' common saying "you have heard...but I tell you" should be an indication to us that as Christians more is being expected of us.

I agree that just wars just don't exist.

Chris said...

JRR Tolkien in one of his letters said "You can't fight the Enemy with his own Ring without turning into an Enemy." I can't say it better than that.

alpoteet said...

Check out the 13 minute video on HollywoodandGod.com. It has convicted me. Interested in your take.

J. K. Jones said...


Is more expected of us, or is it just that Old Testament believers did not know what was expected of them?

We may differ on the just war thing. But I have a real theological issue with the idea that the Law of God, His moral requirements for mankind, changes from the Old Testament to the New Testament. Is that what you are saying?


Did Frodo Baggins carry a sword? Did Gandalf the gray sit still when the Balrog, Durin’s Bane, blocked his path? Did Aragorn just give up when the hordes came against Hornburg? Is truth really that different from fiction?

Chris said...

JK Jones,

The point is that we can't use evil means to accomplish good goals without becoming evil. In Tolkien's world, the evil means is the Ring, not fighting in general. So, no, none of those characters successfully used the Ring against Sauron without becoming a little more evil themselves.

J. K. Jones said...


The question then becomes: is war and / or violence always evil?