Monday, January 21, 2008

Live Free or Die Hard

In Live Free or Die Hard (2007) a terrorist cripples the United States by using his personal knowledge of government and commercial computer systems to take them over and shut them down. The nation grinds to a halt. Numerous images of citizens milling about in confusion and panic as stoplights malfunction, electrical power is turned off, and billions of dollars are shipped overseas specifically bring to mind the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. (I was reminded of similar scenes in the 1950 film The Day the Earth Stood Still). The possibility of a cyber-attack by foreign terrorists has been widely discussed. The film plays into national paranoia about terrorism and computers and the loss of privacy—cameras are everywhere. With only a few mouse clicks the most private information is available to whoever wants it. Nothing is secret or private or secure. Whether a cyber attack against the nation would be successful, I don't know. What makes such an attack possible in this film is the terrorist hacker--he is also the software designer who wrote the programs the nation's computers run. The government ignores his warnings that security is inadequate. He protests, breaks into a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and loses his job. He undertakes the attacks as a form of revenge and also as a way of getting rich.

As the fourth installment in the Die Hard series, Live Free or Die Hard offers a familiar plot. John McClane (Bruce Willis), now a police detective with the NYPD, is sent to bring back a man with a record of hacking government computers for interrogation by the FBI. McClane's rebellious, anti-authority nature has not served him well, and after thirty years he has not advanced very far in law enforcement. He arrives at the hacker's apartment in time to save his life—someone has been sent to kill him. (The hacker, who becomes McClane's sidekick in the film, is played by Justin Long, the actor who represents Apple in the witty but effete commercials that compare Apple and Microsoft computers). In a few short minutes McClane is caught up in the government's efforts to find the man who has crippled the nation's infrastructure. Despite his past history, the FBI trusts McClane and allows him full access to whatever equipment he needs. Without help from any of the nation's law enforcement and security agencies, McClane takes on full responsibility for tracking down the evil terrorist hacker and his henchmen. Stunts, gunfire, explosions, and dead people result.

This film is entertaining and fast-paced, though there is little doubt that McClane will prevail. The most interesting aspect of Life Free or Die Hard is its premise of the nation's vulnerability to terrorist cyber attacks. Although it's unrealistic to believe that a single man would know enough about the nation's computers to shut them down so effortlessly, and equally unrealistic to believe that numerous layers of security wouldn't provide at least some protection, the film nonetheless presents a disturbing scenario realistic enough to make you worry. To what extent is our heavily computerized and connected national infrastructure vulnerable to the sorts of attacks this film portrays? Also interesting is the theme (it runs through all the Die Hard films) that official law enforcement and security agencies such as the local police, the FBI, the military are incapable of dealing with terrorism and high-tech crime. Rather, defeating the bad guys takes someone who lacks technical expertise or finesse but who is wild-eyed and reckless. This is officially sanctioned vigilantism in the form of a single man--John McClane. We've seen this kind of notion at work in numerous other films, from the Dirty Harry films to the Lethal Weapon films to the Rambo series to many others. These vigilante throwbacks to the days of the American frontier betray a fundamental distrust of basic institutions in our government--a distrust that, in the wake of FEMA's failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina and the incompetence of U. S. surveillance activities in Iraq (other examples could be cited) seems justified.

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