Doomsday Marathon: The Postman (1997)
Director: Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves, Waterworld, Open Range)
Novel: David Brin
Screenplay: Eric Roth, Brian Helgeland
Starring: Kevin Costner, Will Patton, Olivia Williams, Larenz Tate, Giovanni Ribisi
MPAA Rating: R
Duration: 177 min
When I signed on to help out with the “Doomsday Marathon” about a million different titles immediately spilled through my mind. The Postman was not one of them. However, once Waterworld and Thirteen Days were called upon and spoken for, I realized that it would be unacceptable to not include the trifecta of Doomsday scenarios starring Kevin Costner. It simply would not be complete without the Restored States of America Postal Service and Tom Petty. So I dusted off an old DVD of the movie (still in shrink wrap) that must’ve been one of the first I ever owned but never got around to watching. I did catch it in the theater way back in 1997, but those memories have long since faded. It’s got more than it’s fair share of weaknesses and was completely shit upon by critics and as I remember it, movie goers as well. But in general I remembered this as a solid little film of which I was genuinely baffled by the seething hate this thing got from almost everyone I knew. So was it the enjoyable little piece of apocalyptic fiction I remember it being? Well… yeah.
If you’re on the ever growing bandwagon of Kevin Costner haters, this is the type of movie for which is the reason. To some, his acting can feel a little stiff at times; particularly his vocal intonations and facial expressions. But his body language and certain character ticks have always worked for me personally. And besides, with The Postman, his role calls for (at least through 3/4 of the film) a slightly subdued character trying to maintain a low profile and avoid confrontation whenever possible. It’s also hinted that the character might understandably be just slightly on the verge of insanity. He not only talks to a mule but also to himself, he imagines bits of the memorable past as though they are real and tries to relive some of those moments in a rather eccentric and even disconcerting way (watching a blank TV and enjoying the hell out of it). So when he interacts with people, the fact that he’s a bit on the apprehensive side is not a symptom of Costner’s lack of acting ability but rather his great sense of exactly who this character is and who he wants him to be. In other words, if you find Costner to be a bit wet, so to speak, this is a case where the role actually requires a character of that ilk.
Costner has since directed two of my favorite westerns of all time in Dances with Wolves and Open Range and it’s clear he loves the genre. So the sense of the wild wild west we get here is not coincidental. The use of horses (which apparently are rather plentiful) and worn out, warm clothing along with the use of sort of antique looking firearms and lack of technology all add to the sense of what is basically a futuristic western. This isn’t Mad Max. There are no cars or trucks or traveling groups of insane savages with reassmebled go-karts. There is not really much of a sense of the surreal that is reminiscent of those types of films. I don’t even recall ever seeing anything resembling much of a highway or road. Each of the small villages that we visit were clearly already small towns and run down and as simplistic as can be. Might as well be Tombstone and you might not know the difference if not aware of the situation. In fact, my friend wandered into my screening right in the middle of the movie and after about fifteen minutes asked me if electricity had been discovered yet – clearly believing that the movie was taking place in centuries past.
The first thing you’ll likely notice here is the insane cheesiness of almost the entire production. Aesthetically speaking there’s not much that’s overblown, but most of the dialogue is overwrought with derivative, dramatic lines and pauses. However, considering the context of the situation the people are in (aside from The General’s sense of theatrical flare) one could argue that the dialogue is actually rather believable. The emotions here are running heavy with despair and fear but simultaneously a tinge of hope as well and I think we can all admit to saying some fairly emotional (arguably cheesy) things in the heat of certain situations. Considering that Costner’s character is an actor and in fact garners the nickname “Shakespeare” within The General’s entourage, the sense for the over dramatic is not only apropos, but also what makes the film give an extra feeling of intensity and fun – helping to make it just a little higher on the epic scale than your usual Hollywood, popcorn flick.
The music on the other hand is another story. It’s trying way too hard to sound epic, even when the film itself doesn’t always call for it. I wouldn’t normally have a problem with overblown crescendos at an unreasonable volume (see Independence Day or The Patriot), but with The Postman, it’s going for the extra sense of pride at nearly every turn. I mean a love scene shouldn’t sound like it’s taking place on a battle field during the climactic moment of victory. And not every single moment of intimacy between two characters needs to sound like it is the defining moment of the movie. Use this tactic sparingly please! Applying it when called for is great and as it happens, necessary. But listening to it in every scene becomes grating and actually dampens the emotional payoff that it should have in other scenes.
Along with the sense of cheesiness in the score may come an overwrought sense of “Ra-Ra America!” that since the advent of the internet I’ve become more and more cognitive about since I hear and read about that complaint all of the time. While I can see that aspect being a complaint with The Postman, I think that in this case it is largely unwarranted. Yes there’s definitely a sense of country pride and patriotism here, laid on rather thick actually, but it’s mostly internal rather than an external “we’re better than everyone else” type of message. Again, considering the premise of the film and its generally limited sense of scope in terms of geography, the use of patriotism makes perfect sense the fact that this is American patriotism is only a symptom of it being made in Hollywood for American audiences. The same film could’ve been made in nearly any free country with the same amount of symbolism and patriotism. Particularly when the main plot thread of the movie is an attempt at restoring a once great nation that has relatively speaking, fallen back into the dark ages.
Another aspect of the film that is kind of entertaining is the way in which it keeps us in touch with current society. It is constantly reminding us of all of the things we stand to lose in the aftermath of holocaust (besides the obvious). Particularly in the beginning, there are some aural cues of Costner’s memories. The sounds of a roaring crowd at a football game, the music from a popular daytime soap opera and even a hint at the loss of the carefree spirit of cruising the town with friends as a teenager. Two popular films are shown to the slaves of the army at one point in the film and they throw a collective fit when Dolph Lundgren appears on their screen blowing everything to smithereens. The memories of destruction is fresh enough in their minds that this is not entertaining. When the reel is changed to The Sound of Music, a sense of calm and appreciation for things lost comes over the crowd. In that one scene, we’re reminded not to take anything for granted and the scene is actually a little moving. Some of the references are there simply for humor’s sake however and for director Costner to give a little wink at his audience. A special treat was learning that the new gov’t has set up shop in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis (my home town). “Ya know. Where the Vikings used to play,” he says.
The entire movie’s message though is really one of anti-war and hope and holding on to the things that are most dear. In some ways the movie is coincidentally sort of relevant to today’s conflict within the middle east. There’s not only a military struggle along with tyrannical leaders and the slaughter of innocent people, but it’s a war for the hearts and minds of the people. Costner lies right through his teeth throughout the entire picture in order to keep the hope alive. Even from the ones he eventually loves does he hide the truth about there not really being a resurrected gov’t and not really being a postal service. In fact, Costner’s character actually does very little to help the world at large. His character is merely a symbol; someone who represents hope and democracy and gives the people something to fight for and care about. He has almost no hand in the advancements that are made within the community. He simply inspires (quite often not even intentionally) and lets others do the grunt work.
The weakest point in the movie is unfortunately the final twenty minutes or so. The final showdown between good and evil is disappointingly anti-climactic and eye-rollingly predictable. Two armies meet on the battle field only to be resolved with a fist fight (and a pretty lame one at that) and some more corny and cliché dialogue. The resolution to the conflict can be seen a mile away as we’ve seen this type of interaction before. There is an interesting epilogue to the story that is kind of needless but also semi-interesting. We flash forward about 40 years and witness an unveiling ceremony of a statue of The Postman. It’s only interesting so much as we get to see how much society has progressed as a result of Costner’s efforts. However, the speeches and grand-standing that are trying way too hard to put a lump in your throat to be effective could’ve been done away with.
In the end, there’s lots to like here. The pop culture references (the aforementioned Tom Petty cameo as himself) and humor keep us in the moment and remind us that this was once our real world – an ingredient that something like the Mad Max pictures are lacking in. The set design too is wonderful and the locales (particularly a scene on top of an enormous water dam) are epic in scope, detail and creativity, yet intimate in their simplicity and sense of humanity. We get a lot of recognizable faces (Giovanni Ribisi, Olivia Williams, Daniel von Bargen, Larenz Tate and even some Mary Stuart Masterson) in unique roles in a unique setting. I liked the theatrical feel to the production and the ideas that it gave forth. I could’ve done without some of the over reaching with score and dialogue but overall really got engrossed with the story. Not part of the anti-Costner clan, I’m usually entertained simply by him doing his thing and here is no different. I realize it’s a movie that’s not really made for everyone and I understand why some would be bored and even a little hateful of this movie. But the lashing this movie took seems to me to be unfounded; maybe even moreso after a re-evaluative watch over ten years later.