Screenplay : Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland (based on by the novel by David Brin)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Kevin Costner (The Postman), Will Patton (General Bethlehem), Larenz Tate (Ford Lincoln Mercury), Olivia Williams (Abby), James Russo (Idaho), Daniel von Bargen (Sheriff Briscoe), Tom Petty (Bridge City Mayor), Scott Bairstow (Luke), Giovanni Ribisi (Bandit 20), Roberta Maxwell (Irene March)
"The Postman," Kevin Costner's three-hour post-apocalyptic Western about the re-emergence of civilization, was one of the most reviled movies of 1997. Produced for a staggering $80 million, it sank like a stone at the box office under the weight of scornful reviews and audience apathy. Warner Brothers ended up swallowing a $60 million loss when all was said and done, and many have predicted it will emerge someday as a new camp classic alongside such other ambitious stinkers as John Boorman's "Zardoz" (1974) or any of Irwin Allen's worst 1970s disaster pics.
The film takes place in 2013, but it has the tone and mythical aspirations of a Spaghetti Western. Kevin Costner stars as a futuristic version of Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, a resolute drifter who does what he can to stay alive, but owes allegiance to no one. He scavenges what he can from the dusty remains of society (apparently there was some kind of nuclear war in 1998), and in exchange for food and shelter, he will perform Shakespeare for the small, scattered communities around the Pacific Northwest, which appears to be the only place in America where there is still human life.
During this time there is no government, no wide-spread laws, and no communication. Control is exerted by General Bethlehem (Will Patton) and his Holnist Army. Bethlehem is a kind of despotic Hitler-character who rules his world by "The Laws of Eights," which (like many aspects of the film) are never fully explained. Basically, they mean that Bethlehem rules the isolated townships through violence and suppression, and he tolerates very little.
Early in the movie, Costner's character is forced into Bethlehem's army, but eventually he escapes. Afterwards, he stumbles upon an old mail truck with a bag of undelivered mail from before the war. Donning the dead postman's uniform, Costner goes to the nearest settlement to deliver the mail, claiming to be a representative of the Restored United States of America. It's all a big lie and he does it only to get food and shelter. What he doesn't count on is the fact that the notion of an organized government and an open line of communication with other settlements gives the people hope. Led by an eager young man who calls himself Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate), a entire group of people young and old start mail routes, and soon the settlements are drawing together again.
"The Postman" is indeed a badly flawed film with numerous plot holes, ridiculous douses of sappy sentimentality, lines that clunk with a vengeance, and what seems to be an utter lack of discipline. That Costner--whose first directorial effort, "Dances With Wolves" (1990), won seven Oscars--could produce such a lemon is a mystery. Even more baffling is the other talent that gets dragged down with him, including screenwriters Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") and Brian Helgeland (who won an Oscar for his other 1997 screenplay adaptation, "L.A. Confidential").
In fact, if anyone is really to blame for the general inadequacy of "The Postman," it's Roth and Helgeland's appallingly bad script. Among other things, it features one of those awfully contrived endings where it comes down to a one-on-one fight between the good guy and the bad guy, the good guy wins, and then asserts his moral superiority by refusing to kill the bad guy. Of course, the audience wants to see the baddie get his, so the script contrives him to make a cheap shot at the good guy's life, which then justifies his being killed. That way, the movie can claim to be moralistic and anti-violence, while still delivering the vicarious goods.
However, unlike some critics who unleashed a vicious wave of fury on "The Postman," I do not subscribe to the notion that the entire premise of the film is fundamentally misconceived. After all, the plot was taken from an award-winning science fiction novel by David Brin, so it is more Costner's execution of the material that is to blame, not the material itself.
Although Costner is often clumsy and overly sentimental in his direction, I think a major reason behind the audience and critical rejection of "The Postman" was bias in the viewers. In recent years, the postal system has come under extended fire from the American public for being slow, expensive, and out-dated. And why not? In the era of instant faxes, e-mail, and teleconferencing, sending a letter through the "snail mail" does seem archaic. Therefore, when "The Postman" posits the notion that sending mail would be the spark that reinvigorates a dying society, people's first reaction is to laugh.
What many critics of this film missed is the notion that communication, in any form, is the vital link to maintaining a healthy society. It was the ability to communicate that first drew humans into communities, and society has advanced in tandem with communication technology. The fact that we are now living in what media theorist Marshall McLuhan first called the "global village" back in 1964 is living proof of the necessity and evolving nature of communication in any complex society.
What "The Postman" advances (in its own clumsy way) is the absolutely correct notion that re-establishing lines of communication between settlements would be the logical first step in re-creating the modern society that was devastated by war. General Bethlehem is fully aware of this, and he does everything in his power to keep the groups separate. Like any dictatorial power, Bethlehem understands that keeping groups isolated and out of touch makes them weak and easily controllable.
Information is power, and he who controls information controls the world. Recent history bears this out in especially painful episodes like the raising of the Berlin Wall. The East German government knew that if its people knew about what they were missing in the West, they would all leave. So what to do? Build a wall and keep them from finding out, which is exactly what Bethlehem and his army attempts to do.
What is unfortunate is the fact that this potentially workable fable is sunk so low by the resulting film. While the first hour of "The Postman" seems to show possibility, the next two are filled with endless campy moments. The two most egregious (and oft-mentioned by critics) are the mawkish slow-motion scene of the Postman grabbing a letter out of the outstretched hand of a smiling young boy (a scene which is later bronzed into a statue and used as the movie's fade-out image), and the unspeakable line uttered by the Postman's love interest, Abby: "You give out hope like it was candy in your pocket." It's an atrocious line, and amazingly enough, the bright young actress who delivers it, Olivia Williams, comes damn close to pulling it off. To me, the movie's worst lines were the Western clichés, like when the sheriff intones, "Postman, I don't who you are, but I was wrong about you." Shane, where are you when we need you most?
While I don't defend "The Postman" as a great or even a good piece of moviemaking, it does have its moments. The cinematography by Stephen F. Windon is often magnificent, especially in some of its aerial shots (it is only here that you can see the visual mastery that made "Dances With Wolves" so beautiful). The movie paints a believable portrait of what America might be like after a world-wide holocaust, and most of the lead actors deliver good performances. Although watching Costner act brooding and solitary is getting a little old (whatever happened to the good old days of Eliott Ness from "The Untouchables"?), Will Patton makes a fine, venomous villain who is most threatening because he is both intelligent and vicious.
Even though many critics took issue with the movie's unabashed patriotism, I found it a bit refreshing to see a little flag-waving from Hollywood, whose movies usually make an effort to undermine American patriotism. Anyway, the flag-waving really isn't that gratuitous because it makes sense within the confines of the plot: considering that most of the characters still remember life in the U.S. before the war, doesn't it stand to reason that they would embrace the notion of going back to the old lives they remember with such fondness? Too bad so much else in the movie doesn't make that much sense.
©1998 James Kendrick