Postman, The (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There are two ways that you can look at Kevin Costner's The Postman (not to be confused with the former Oscar contender of the same name, starring Massimo Troisi). The first is that it's a muddled but occasionally-brilliant lampoon of epic motion pictures. The other is that it's a horribly written, badly acted miscalculation of Ishtar-like proportions. If you take The Postman at face value - that it's a straightforward, post-apocalyptic adventure tale, then it could seem like one of the worst movies of the year, if not of all time. However, since I laughed so hard during some scenes, I prefer to be a little kinder. Yes, it's a bad movie, but it's not one of the most unbearable theatrical experiences of the year. In fact, if you approach The Postman in the right mood, it's a highly watchable motion picture.

Admittedly, that's damning with faint praise, but I don't think The Postman is so gut- wrenchingly awful that it deserves less than 2 stars. With all of its rampant jingoism, cliched melodrama, and shameless attempts at emotional manipulation, The Postman could easily be viewed as a clever satire of epic adventures. In fact, there are times when it goes so far overboard that I found it virtually impossible to believe that director Kevin Costner wasn't winking at us. Sadly, based in part on the film's overall tone and in part on some of the director's comments, this doesn't seem to be the case. Except in certain moments that are obviously intended to be humorous, The Postman is not supposed to be a joke. But intent isn't everything, as fans of campy classics will point out. Regardless of what Costner wanted from the movie, it's still possible to enjoy it on a completely different level.

Of course, the running length is the real drawback. It's difficult to thrill to the dissonant rhythms of an "entertainingly bad" movie that threatens to drag for three hours. At half that length, The Postman might have been worth a recommendation, but, past the two hour mark, all of the cheese and corn starts becoming painful. Plus, a rather unfortunate attempt to add a message about consequences brings the movie to a grinding halt. We want to see overblown acts of heroism to go along with James Newton Howard's grandiose score and Stephen Windon's sweeping camerawork. Instead, we get a little too much of Kevin Costner brooding.

This side of a TV commercial, never has the U.S. Mail Service been so lauded (I wonder if they paid a heavy product placement fee). On top of that, there's such a cloying dose of patriotism that it's a wonder that Warner Brothers has been able to sell the film overseas (of course, the foreign markets may view all of the half-baked, pro-American slogans as one big joke). From a marketing standpoint, the only thing The Postman has going for it is the star, and his already-dipping stock is likely to take a precipitous tumble after this movie hits screens across the world.

The film opens in 2013 on the Great Salt Flats of Utah. In the aftermath of a cataclysmic world war, the human race has been fragmented and scattered. The government of the United States has collapsed, and now anarchy reigns. Small communities across the remains of the country jealously protect what they have by offering tribute to the dictatorial General Bethlehem (Will Patton), whose army of bandits and murderers controls everything. Any settlement that defies Bethlehem is quickly razed.

One day, a solitary wanderer (Costner) enters a small town to present a one-man Shakespeare show as a means of earning a little food and shelter. General Bethlehem pays a surprise visit to this village and the nameless loner is conscripted into the Holnist army. He is a rebellious man, however, and it isn't long before he escapes. Fleeing from search parties, he hides out in an old, broken down mail carrier's truck. Taking the full letterbag and the coat off a skeleton, he becomes the Postman. And, as he travels from town-to-town, speaking words of hope about the "Reformed Congress of the United States" and giving out letters, his reputation spreads, and Bethlehem determines that he's a threat.

Costner has done everything possible to make this film a crowd-pleaser. There are snappy one- liners, a romantic subplot for those who crave a little sex, and several manipulative scenes that are designed to get audiences to applaud wildly. Unfortunately, we're too busy laughing at all of the bloated silliness to remember to clap. Take, for example, one of the film's most emotional moments: a slow-motion shot of the Postman on horseback snatching a letter out of the hand of an eager boy. The brief sequence is filmed with such solemnity that it's all-but-impossible not to be amused, however briefly.

Costner plays the Postman like a combination of John Dunbar from Dances with Wolves and the mariner from Waterworld. It's not a particularly energetic or interesting performance, and it's made even more tiresome by the hero's reluctance to act decisively (this wastes a good forty-five minutes). As the villain, Will Patton is generic. He's neither good nor bad, and doesn't bring much more to the part than we'd get from a Dennis Hopper or a Gary Busey. Larenz Tate's character, Ford Lincoln Mercury, is the stereotypical idealistic enthusiast, and Tate puts about as much energy into the role as it deserves. The only legitimate spark is generated by newcomer Olivia Williams, who plays Abby, the Postman's love interest. She's quite good, and manages to develop an independent female character who's not always in need of rescuing, but her above-average effort is wasted in this material.

It's hard to believe that the same man who directed a modern classic, Dances with Wolves, could be responsible for something this horribly mishandled. Where did it all go wrong? Probably at the very beginning. The Postman is a bad idea, poorly executed. The plot is dumb and riddled with gaping holes of logic, and the dialogue sounds like it was penned by a hack writer. (One classic line: Abby, addressing the Postman, says in a heartfelt voice, "You give out hope like it was candy in your pocket." Puhleeze! Give me a break!) When all is said and done, however, at least it can amuse us. And, even at an interminable three hours, it still offers more solid laughs than half of this year's so-called "comedies."

Postman, The (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:57
U.S. Release Date: 1997-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1