I think films have to have a heartbeat. If you're going to fight in a movie, you have to have something to fight for. If you're going to kill somebody, there has to be a reason why. If someone's going to die, it must hurt.
- Kevin Costner, actor/director
"The Postman" took twelve years to be transformed from the novel by David Brin to the $80 million post-apocalyptic epic. After being passed on by director Ron Howard, with Tom Hanks cast as the main character, actor/director Kevin Costner became involved in 1994, working with a screenplay penned by Eric Roth ("Forrest Gump") and Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential"). And though Kevin Costner presents a very personal vision of the potential of the human spirit, this passionate story is derailed by an overindulgent length and a messy script.
You know why you're not a fighter? Because you don't care about anything, you don't stand for anything, and you don't believe in anything.
In the year 2013, the United States of America has fallen victim to a Second Civil War, ignited by a right-wing farmer name Holn, presumably from the American Midwest. A nameless wanderer (Costner) treks across the barren landscape with his trusty mule, exchanging his mangled performance of the works of Shakespeare in exchange for food and shelter at each isolated hamlet that he comes upon. After one such performance in a small village, he is forcibly conscripted by General Bethlehem (Will Patton, last seen in "The Spitfire Grill"), a former photocopy salesman turned fascist leader of the Holnists, who maintains the legacy of terror handed down the group's founder. After being taken to Bethlehem's compound, located in the remains of a strip mine, 'Shakespeare', as his captives call their new literate conscript, is put through a brutal basic training to become a soldier of the Holnist army, despite his protestations of not 'being a fighter'. He manages to escape the compound and finds refuge in an abandoned mail truck, where he takes the uniform off a dead postman to keep warm.
The next morning, he comes up with a new scam for getting food and shelter from the villages he comes across by calling himself 'The Postman', who is delivering mail on behalf of the congress of the newly-restored United States of America, which is now based in Minneapolis and under the leadership of a President Starkey. And according to 'Article 417', each village he comes across is obliged to provide shelter and food in exchange for postal services. The Postman lucks out in the first village he comes across, Pineview, when one of the sixteen-year old letters in his mailbag is addressed to a blind woman. He is immediately taken in by the villagers, who are hungry to know more about the restored government back east, and he manages to inspire an impressionable young man (Larenz Tate) to become the country's second Postman. He is also introduced to Abby (played by British television and stage actress Olivia Williams), a woman who is looking for a sperm donor so that she and her sterile husband can have a child.
How many letters can a dead postman deliver?
After the Postman leaves the next day, Bethlehem rolls into town with his army and is angered by the sight of an American flag flying over the town's post office. The flag is burned, the now-pregnant Abby is abducted by Bethlehem, and her husband is killed. Fortunately, the Postman and Abby meet up again later, and together they escape and spend a winter together. When they emerge in the spring, they are shocked to find a small army of postal carriers roaming the countryside, established by the Postman's young understudy, who is perpetuating the illusion of a restored nation. Unfortunately, Bethlehem sees these new posties as a threat to his authority over the general population, and decrees that they must be hunted down. And so the dilemma for the Postman is apparent-- maintain the illusion of a restored nation at the risk of further bloodshed, or disband the postal carriers along with any semblance of hope?
If I told you the real story of how I became a postman, I don't know if you'd laugh or cry.
At its core, "The Postman" is an inspiring story that speaks to the strength of communities, the foundation of nationhood, and how ideals can become larger than those who initiated them. As it has happened repeatedly throughout history, the individuals that were present at any turning point have become potent symbols and had their own weaknesses overshadowed by the larger-than-life institution they have left as legacy. The Postman's falsehood becomes an ideal that others find inspiration and purpose in, and his original motivations become unimportant in the face of the prominence that others place in what it represents.
Only another postman can make you a postman.
Kinda like vampires, right?
Yeah... something like that.
But, and it is a very big 'but', the muddled script fails to deliver on these themes. I had to shake my head at several instances where the epic potential of this film was shortchanged by clunky dialogue, hokey melodrama, jingoistic excesses, overindulgence on the part of Costner as a director and actor, and many cloying and just-plain annoying moments. "The Postman" walks a very fine line between serious drama and mawkish camp, with several lines and scenes that are meaningful in intent but are cheesy in execution. For example, a scene with the Postman on horseback picking up mail from a young boy Pony-Express style goes on way too long and is overly-dramatized to the point of absurdity. An epic battle scene towards the end (which is resolved, by all things, with the equivalent of a schoolyard brawl), has hundreds of postal carriers being led by the Postman on horseback, riding towards Bethlehem's army. Maybe it's just a North American hang-up, but in a time where news stories of postal employees taking shots at their bosses and fellow employees, and the colloquialism 'going postal' are established aspects of popular culture, the image of hundreds of heavily-armed posties on horseback is unintentionally hilarious and exudes a sarcastic bite. Finally, this film seems to be a page-for-page translation of the novel, clocking in at three hours. Unfortunately, it probably would have been a tauter narrative with an hour of unnecessary exposition and plot points excised (particularly a superfluous detour where the Postman goes to meet Tom Petty).
"The Postman" could have been a great movie, touching on substantial themes and delivering an important message, but burdened by a muddled script and Costner's egotistical mugging for the camera, it fails to convey the potential of the story. However, like "Dances With Wolves", "The Postman" is visually stunning, with beautiful vistas and cinematography by Stephen Windon, and is probably the best-looking post-apocalyptic film ever. Unfortunately, it's just not enough.