THE LEGEND: Jeremy Irons’ plot in Die Hard With a Vengeance to rob the US Federal Reserve Bank of all its gold bullion exposed real life weaknesses in the Federal Reserve’s security.
There are certain things you’re not actually supposed to show in film or television for ethical reasons. If a character attempts to commit suicide by slicing their wrists you have them slice across, not down. Every now and then, though, A Royal Tenenbaums will come along and scream, “Here’s how you actually slice your wrists!” If your character is carefully explaining how to build nitroglycerin bombs you alter the ingredients so that some nutjob viewer won’t be able to build a bomb just from watching your movie. The Fight Club novel said screw that, but the Fight Club movie did air on the side of public safety and alter its listing of ingredients. Of course, such information is readily available on the internet, but you don’t have to make it even easier for people.
Once you reach a certain level, though, you figure everything is fair game. For example, sometimes a movie villain’s evil plan comes off so surprisingly plausible we walk out of the theater nervously wondering, “Could that really happen?” That often begins with a screenwriter sitting down and wondering, “If someone was to going to do this [evil plan] in real life how would they go about it?” That’s exactly what Jonathan Hensleigh did when he wrote Die Hard with a Vengeance, which just turned 20 yesterday.
That’s not to say that everything in Jeremy Irons’ evil scheme in the film is replicable. It’s just supposed to be suitably twisty for an action movie and seem plausible enough for the 2 plus hours we’re watching the movie. The plan mostly hinges on successfully distracting the authorities with a faux-terrorist threat. However, the main plan is ingenious. The villain and his men disguise themselves as subway car repair workers and use an aqueduct in the New York City Water Tunnel system to dig into the Federal Reserve Bank, hauling $140 billion of gold bullion away in 14 dump trucks transported in and out of Manhattan.
Back in 1995, was the Federal Reserve really that vulnerable? Absolutely! In fact, Hensleigh’s description of the Reserve vault and apparent knowledge of the New York City Water Tunnel system raised more than a few eyebrows at the New York Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In the Die Hard with a Vengeance DVD commentary, Hensleigh says:
When the script was being vetted by all the authorities in New York [during pre-production], obviously the New York Police Department had to read the script for a number of reasons. One day I got a call from the FBI. They were extremely concerned about how I knew so much about the Federal Reserve, and how the Federal Reserve’s vaults were really close to a subway spur, and logistically about the aqueduct tunnel, etc.
Hensleigh was terrified, thinking he was about to be arrested under suspicion of terrorist activities. He successfully explained just how much of the information he’d uncovered was actually freely given to him by involved parties or simply based off of newspaper articles:
I said, “Well guys, the reason why I know what the vault looks like in the Federal Reserve is because they let us down there. They showed it to us. The reason why I know that a subway spur is very close to the vault and that you could actually tunnel through it is because they showed us the plans and the layout. And the reason why I know there is an aqueduct tunnel coming down through Manhattan that you can drives these trucks through is because I read about it in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. So I’m really not employed by Afghani terrorists. I really don’t have any kind of secret proprietary knowledge that I shouldn’t have.”
In the end, they accepted his explanation. His research even inspired them to re-think the Federal Reserve’s security:
This one scene, our FBI guy said, “You know it sounds crazy, but somebody could actually pull this off. We’re going to actually have a sit-down [meeting] and talk about how we can improve the facility so that it could never happen.” That pleased me, actually.
THE VERDICT: True
The format of this post is an homage to Brian Cronin’s fantastic site LegendsRevealed.com.