What willful streak of perversity inspired Kevin Costner to take on this wacky tale of a letter carrier-turned-postapocalyptic hero, brother to such he-men as Seinfeld‘s Newman and that sad, skinny guy in Il Postino?—Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
Every truly awful movie epic has a point of no return, a moment when the accumulated bad lines and bogus sentimentality become so cloying that the best defense against a mounting queasiness is an awed amusement. If you have a low tolerance for mawkish jingoism, Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic Western, The Postman, offers a new opportunity for levity every few minutes after its first hour.—Stephen Holden, The New York Times
Goofy and gee-whiz when it isn’t being post-apocalyptic glum, it is such an earnest hodgepodge that only by imagining Mad Max directed by Frank Capra can you get even an inkling of what it’s like.—Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Ah, The Postman: The butt of so many late-’90s topical jokes, it makes Ishtar look like Citizen Kane. Ironically, Kenneth Turan’s dyspeptic description of the film as “Mad Max directed by Frank Capra” is dead-on—but I consider that a positive. The Postman boasts a winning combination of ambition, sentiment, idealism, and insanity. Some three-hour films are a chore to sit through, but The Postman breezes through its runtime, brimming with a unique cinematic voice and offbeat charm usually lacking in big-budget studio fare.
Right now is the perfect time to revisit the film, being that we’ve hit an onslaught of post-apocalyptic films (The Book of Eli, The Road, Zombieland, and more to come) that feature grim, frequently harrowing depictions of society at its absolute worst. Kevin Costner has a bit more faith in humanity than this recent crop of films. He has an awareness that, even if a cataclysmic event occurs, people will not immediately start rubbing themselves with old oil filters and eating each other. When challenged, we huddle together and muddle through. If we didn’t have that primitive ability, humanity would have died out centuries ago. As noble doctor Jack Shephard once said, “We can either live together, or we can die alone.” Costner chooses the former, and his film doesn’t even have a smoke monster!
The Postman opens in 2013, several years after a frequently referenced civil war that left the U.S. fragmented and isolated. We don’t get many details, but we’re left with the impression that most of the major cities fell, and what remains are isolated small towns, pooling skills and resources in order to survive. (This much, at least, should terrify the anti-communist crowd.) With the lack of a unified government, these towns operate as little independent states, run by local mayors and sheriffs, and people generally treat each other well despite the undercurrent of despair.
And then there’s General Bethlehem (Will Patton), an intelligent man who has amassed an army formed partly of those who fought in the war but mainly able-bodied men he plucks from towns his army periodically pillages. As Bethlehem himself describes his position, they’re a feudal society, and he’s their lord. The great thing here is that Costner and Patton don’t let Bethlehem become a sneering, simpering villain on a stupid, single-minded quest. Unlike Gary Oldman in The Book of Eli, Patton’s Bethlehem firmly believes he’s the hero of the story. In a different kind of story, he could be. He’s restored order to his small slice of a chaotic country, and his goals have less to do with horrendous abuse of his “vassals” than protecting them from the outsiders he believes are a threat. Part of this has to do with his desire to maintain an empire without interference, but there’s a certain misguided nobility in his desire to amass an army of slaves to ensure the safety of those who remain relatively free.
In early scenes, Costner’s never-named character (I’ll just call him The Postman to make life easier) roams from town to town, butchering the works of Shakespeare in exchange for food and shelter. When Bethlehem’s army descends on a town, The Postman attempts to sneak away with his mule, but Bethlehem spots him and recruits him for his army, which dwells in something resembling a desert canyon. Caged with other prisoners, all The Postman can think about is escape, but none of the other prisoners want to risk their lives to help him.
Bethlehem sees an intellectual equal in The Postman. He’s older than most of Bethlehem’s recruits, so they both remember the way things were before the war. However, the war itself has left them both with diametrically opposed perspectives on humanity. Bethlehem believes they need order and control; The Postman, not surprisingly, lobbies for freedom and civil rights, mainly because he’s a cynic who wants to be left alone.
Because of his intelligence and survival skills, Bethlehem chooses The Postman to lead a hunting party for a lion that escaped from what used to be a zoo. The Postman sees his opportunity for escape. He jumps off a rickety rope bridge and swims to freedom. He hides in an old mail truck that crashed in the woods, which contains all the accoutrements of the old U.S. Postal Service: a bag full of letters, a uniform, and the skeleton of the deceased letter carrier.
The Postman sees this as an easy con—if he can find letters addressed to survivors in various towns, he can fool them into giving him the good things in life without having to perform for them. He tries this out on a town called Pineview, and although the sheriff (Daniel von Bargen) eyes him distrustfully, the fact that The Postman arrives bearing legitimate, 15-year-old letters fills the town with hope. He’s an instant celebrity, to the extent that an infertile couple (Olivia Williams, Charles Esten) begs him to be the “body father” of their child.
It’s right around this time that The Postman realizes he may have overstepped a bit. He just wants something to eat; he has no desire to lead a revolution based on a fantasy. Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate), a teenager who named himself after a rusty old car dealership sign, represents the idealistic youth. He’s been searching for a purpose, and until he meets The Postman he thinks that purpose is attempting to repair and drive old cars. The Postman begins to fear the level of attention and the desperate optimism of the townspeople. Quietly, the sheriff orders him to leave before he causes too much trouble, and The Postman eagerly obliges—but not before reluctantly swearing in Ford as a junior postman.
When Bethlehem and his troops arrive for their usual tribute (and to search for The Postman), he’s shocked by Pineview’s misguided hope and subtle rebellion. He’s horrified to see an American flag raised over the post office and orders Pineview’s citizens to burn it and the post office. The Postman travels to another town, working the same con, and this time things are even worse—the townspeople close the gates on Bethlehem, announcing themselves as citizens of the Restored United States. They send The Postman—their “government rep”—to negotiate. It takes Bethlehem awhile to realize the clean-shaven, well-dressed man is their missing “Shakespeare.” He attacks the town, but The Postman and Abby (Williams) fight back. The Postman is shot in the melee, so Abby takes him to an isolated cabin, subsisting on grass and “water soup” (and, eventually, the meat of the horse they rode in on). They spend the winter holed up together, and guess what? She’s pregnant with his child.
Months later, they return to Pineview to discover Ford has turned the postal service into a thriving hope machine. He’s recruited dozens of other letter carriers, turned an abandoned factory into a sorting facility, and created 30 routes throughout Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. He continues to perpetuate The Postman’s lies (which he believes are true) about a restored government in Minneapolis, led by President Richard Starkey.
The Postman is stunned at what he finds, and what follows over the ensuing 90 minutes is the conflict between the noble peacenik postmen and the increasingly fearful, clearly unhinged Bethlehem, who sees the optimism represented by mail as the biggest threat to his leadership.
Maybe some of you read that lengthy summary of half (half!) the movie with your jaws on the floor, stunned at the oddness of this story. Maybe you should, but half the reason The Postman works so well is because it’s sort of cheerfully nuts. Like Capra’s work, Costner’s overall earnestness and positivity is tempered by a biting wit that leads to legitimately funny lines like, “Wouldn’t it be great if wars could be fought just by the assholes who started them?”
Upon its original release, The Postman got a lot of flack for its length, but I challenge any of its critics to find a single poorly paced moment or unnecessary scene. Considering the length, the story is surprisingly tight—there’s just a lot of it, and Costner (working with Oscar-winning screenwriters Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland, no strangers to big-budget adaptations) has the good sense to take time developing the characters and post-apocalyptic world. By the end of it, even the smallest supporting character seems as familiar as George Bailey’s friends in Bedford Falls—and, like It’s a Wonderful Life, this film would have suffered enormously if we didn’t know or care about those people as much as The Postman himself.
I spent a lot of time describing the plot to illustrate that this film has more going on—in terms of character, narrative, theme, and its presentation of sci-fi and sociological concepts—in half its runtime than a lot of films possess altogether. As director, Costner manages the stunning feat of making an eventful, fast-paced film feel both deliberate and expansive. It’s a constantly inventive, genre-bending work that refuses to be pigeonholed. Costner takes numerous creative gambles that, in my view, pay off in spades. The lack of any overt “futuristic” special effects prevents cheesy gimmicks from getting in the way of the story, and the commitment to characters gives The Postman an effortlessly epic feel that fits well with the story of a man who single-handedly changes the world.
Beyond the characters and story, Costner subtly builds a universe unlike anything seen in cinematic sci-fi at that time. Pioneer towns have sprung up around the bombed-out remnants of modern structures. People haven’t reverted back to primitive ways so much as 19th century ways. The literal mash-up of the sci-fi and western genres would be done again in Fox’s short-lived Firefly (and its spinoff film, Serenity), but on that show it’s sort of a goofy conceit made plausible through sheer force of will. In The Postman, the reversion sort of makes sense. It’s only 2013, after all, and once machinery goes down and there’s no infrastructure to restore such things, we have to revert to an agrarian society built largely on self-reliance (or, at best, reliance on a small group of locals rather than a thousand Chinese factories to make clothes and junk food for us).
The Postman‘s portrayal of futuristic people oppressed by a fascist leader is nothing new. The difference is that these people aren’t terribly downtrodden. Obviously, things aren’t great, but they make the best of a bad situation, instead of complaining about things and mourning the way life used to be. For the most part, Bethlehem is little more than a weekly nuisance. When he leaves, they go back to feeling free to say and do whatever they want. Costner’s depiction of this world is subtly terrifying, much more so than a generic megalomaniac savagely beating down a group of mangy, starving cowards in rags. The fact that these people have freedom of thought but choose not to fight is scarier to me than people who have been brainwashed into doing another’s bidding. Handling the social attitude in this way also makes it easier to believe their change once The Postman gives them hope. They aren’t doing a straight 180—it’s more like a 30-degree twist from “mostly hopeless” to “somewhat hopeful.”
Ultimately, though, the movie’s just a lot of fun. It does everything well, but it has a sense of humor about its characters and story. To read the reviews, you’d have to believe Costner approached the film with a leaden gravity reserved for Jane Campion films. This is not the case. Consider the bizarre yet hilarious moment where Bethlehem—who fancies himself a skilled painter—attempts a self-portrait using a mirror. When his hand shakes, Bethlehem screams at the mirror, “Hold still!” After somebody insults The Postman’s Shakespeare performance, he asks, “How much did you pay to get in?” The man answers with a guilty look that lets us know he paid nothing. “So bite me,” The Postman continues. I’ve seen that quoted in numerous reviews to suggest Costner knew he was making a bad film and was both defensive and apologetic with that exchange. I think that’s reading a bit too much into what’s merely a legitimately funny moment in a generally fun, raucously entertaining cinematic experience.
Mark my words: The Postman will endure as an underrated classic, willfully misunderstood in its own time by an indifferent holiday audience (who decided they’d rather turn out for the worst James Bond movie ever made) and critics still looking to punish Costner for future Movie Defender subject Waterworld (not nearly as good as The Postman, but it didn’t deserve a tenth of the scorn heaped on it). In a year that saw the release of The Devil’s Advocate, Dante’s Peak, and Alien: Resurrection, it’s astounding to think anyone would consider The Postman among the worst of 1997. It wasn’t even the worst movie to open in its weekend (that distinction goes to Mr. Magoo). I’m not being at all hyperbolic when I say The Postman ranks among the best films of the ’90s—maybe not in the top 10, but certainly in the top 50.