Clocking in at two hours and twelve minutes, Die Hard has quite a bit of story to tell. But the crazy thing is, most of the story happens in real time, with merely a few hours passing between John McClane's arrival at LAX and the final resolution of the hostage crisis. That's some taut storytelling right there.
Much as Die Hard makes use of its single, confined location to lend a little verve to the movie's pace, the narrow window of time forces the plotting to be both taut and a little frenetic. On paper, the movie might sound simple: terrorists take over a building, and a cowboy cop saves the day.
But Die Hard also weaves in subplots about the law enforcement politics on the ground, the reporters covering the story, and, of course, Argyle. These subplots help pace the movie and give it a sense of scope that its confined location may have otherwise denied it, as the narrative jumps among the three main settings—the Nakatomi offices, other sites in the building where John McClane and the terrorists are hard at work, and the scene on the ground, with all the local LEOs frantically trying to figure out what to do.
Still, it's not like Die Hard's screenwriters are pulling any fancy narrative tricks. Everything occurs chronologically, in almost real time, with no flashbacks or flash-forwards to be spoken of. So while the movie looks long on paper, its pace is designed to keep the forward momentum going.
Basically, you're on this ride 'til the end.
It's All in the Details
If you, like Shmoop, enjoy watching Die Hard over and over again, much to the annoyance of everyone else around you, then you've probably noticed the movie's meticulous attention to detail. One of the defining characteristics of Die Hard's narrative is the fact that tons of little details—whether lines said by a character or objects that get mentioned in passing—come back in some way. The movie sweats the small stuff.
Want a run-down? Oh, we're so glad you asked:
Holly's watch. It gets an early mention in an awkward moment and then becomes a pivotal object in the plot when Gruber clings to it as his last lifeline, while hanging from the top of Nakatomi Plaza. (See "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more.)
John's teddy bear. We see John McClane haul a giant teddy bear—presumably a gift for his kids--down from the overhead compartment as he disembarks the plane at the beginning of the movie. That bear then sits in the back of Argyle's limo for the entire rest of the movie. Argyle even talks to the bear, when he thinks it's judging him for his inaction. Fun Fact: A very similar bear—also with a red bow—makes an appearance in John McTiernan's next movie, The Hunt for Red October, also on an airplane, when the protagonist brings it home for his daughter.
Tony's Zippo. After he kills Tony in the stairwell, John McClane searches his body for anything he can pilfer. He swipes Tony's Zippo lighter, which then makes a reappearance in the air duct scene, lighting John's way through the vent.
Twinkies. In a coincidence to beat all coincidences, John tries to eat a really old Twinkie while he's on the radio with Sergeant Al Powell, which gives Powell a chance to expound on his favorite snack's virtues. (See "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more.)
The family portrait. When Holly overturns the family portrait prominently featuring John because she thinks he bailed on his flight to Los Angeles, she has no idea that, for much of the movie, this action keeps her safe. It's only when Gruber sees the McClane children on TV, and turns the portrait back over, that he knows who Holly really is: the cowboy's wife.