Kevin Costner's last outing as director/star, Dances With Wolves, nabbed Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay, but his post-apocalyptic followup, The Postman, is too standard-issue to impress even the resolutely middlebrow minds of Academy voters. Nor is it likely to please audiences.
Call it what you will--Waterworld on dry land, Dances With Mailbags--but The Postman offers nothing that hasn't been done before with far greater style and excitement...and at half the length.
Two years ago the Academy nominated the Italian film Il Postino (aka The Postman) for multiple Oscars. The arrival of Costner's epic is unlikely to threaten the other's status. No one will confuse the two.
Indeed, at two hours and 58 minutes, Costner's The Postman is an epic-sized inflation of very modest material. While it doesn't cleave as slavishly to the story of Road Warrior as Waterworld did, it still bears enough similarities to the George Miller/Mel Gibson classic to invite comparison at every turn.
Following one of the all-time classic plot patterns, Costner casts himself as a nameless Everyman, trying to survive in the rubble of a fallen America circa 2013. War has destroyed the country's fabric, leaving communities isolated by fear and suspicion. The film opens with a voiceover explaining about the war--so close to the intro to Road Warrior that it feels like a rewrite. The visual shows Everyman hauling his ass across the Utah salt flats--literally. He is leading his mule, Bill, with whom he performs a traveling stage show, very loosely adapted from Macbeth.
His performance is just amusing enough to earn him an occasional handout. But before long, he is captured by General Bethlehem (Will Patton), a fascist leader, and forced into joining Bethlehem's army, which is terrorizing the Pacific Northwest.
It's fully 45 minutes before our hero escapes the army and discovers the U.S. Postal Service uniform that changes his life. Seeing the opportunity for a new scam, he claims to be a postal representative of a newly re-formed U.S. government, headquartered in Minneapolis. Armed with a mailbag of sixteen-year-old letters, he bluffs his way into the town of Pineview, where, he explains, he is entitled by law to lodging and provisions. He also manages to pick up a by-the-numbers romantic interest in the person of a young widow (Olivia Williams), who proves to be more heroic than Our Hero.
His fantasies about a new government bring a ray of hope to the dispirited townspeople and earn him heroic status. He soon becomes legendary as the Postman; he swears in young Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate) as a postal employee, just to get rid of the kid. But after the Postman's departure, Ford takes the initiative to establish a local postal operation.
What started as a scam burgeons into a promise of a return to order: The Postman, despite himself, must actually grow into the heroic role that has been fabricated for him. And since Bethlehem's power is dependent on continued anarchy, the despot targets the new postal system for destruction.
The symbolism is up front and reasonably logical: The postal service makes as good an icon of government stability as any without invoking the sort of militarism that is here reserved for the bad guys. And the Postman's character growth is accomplished believably.
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There are a few minor inconsistencies in the setup. The film takes place in 2013, only sixteen years away; at least one character is identified as a Vietnam vet. Yet no one, young or old, except the Postman, seems to remember anything of the pre-apocalyptic culture. In one of the film's few effective jokes, the hero is asked who the new president is; unprepared, he spits out the first name that comes to mind, a name that everyone in the movie audience recognizes but no one on screen does--even though that's supposed to be us up there.
The story's thematic foundation--the reluctant hero who has to rise to the occasion--is still effective, no matter how many times it's been done, but the film's extreme length saps its energy. Everything takes far longer than necessary, as though sheer heft will grant the story some importance, some iconic significance far beyond what the film earns. The final product is never dull, but there's no reason it couldn't have been shortened considerably...and improved in the process. A little more wit would have been welcome as well.
As it is, given the resemblances to Road Warrior, it's hard not to sit there wishing Costner had lifted the right elements from Miller's film. Miller, creating a transcendent pulp classic, knew how to set up the mythic underpinnings in shorthand while keeping the action (and the camera) constantly moving. For Costner, pulp isn't enough; he de-emphasizes the action and stresses the "serious" elements, so intent on epic scale that everything feels mired in pretension.
Written by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland. Based on the book by David Brin. Directed by Kevin Costner. With Kevin Costner, Will Patton, Larenz Tate and Olivia Williams.