The year is 2013 – 15 years after a huge civil war has plunged America into a primitive state, with people huddling in small hamlets out of touch with the world. We see this through the eyes of Kevin Costner’s own man-with-no-name, a drifter who performs to earn meals. He becomes “The Postman” about 50 minutes in, but I don’t want to summarize why because it’s hard not to make it sound silly in short form. This likely will be the main way some critics make the film look totally ridiculous: “Hyuk hyuk, he’s a postal worker! Does he wear those blue postal shorts?”
Actually, he wanted this film to be about restoring what he feels is best about the United States, using the post office to represent a small part of that. In this future, the government and all the symbols of America are gone, and a Gen. Bethlehem (Will Patton) runs an Oregon-based army that wants to keep it that way. At times The Postman is almost painfully sincere in presenting its message, while at other times it attempts to be ironic – and sometimes it does both at once. It has its heart on its sleeve…with graffiti on the heart (a mixed metaphor, I know).
The dialogue is hit-or-miss. I don’t think Costner-as-director is good at deciding what jokes he should tell, and there’s an almost painful scene where he and Bethlehem speak Cliffs-Notes-Shakespeare at each other. But I did like a self-reflexive line in the finale about who fights wars…a line I can’t repeat in a family paper.
The story takes its time, which I see as a virtue, though others might get bored. Yes, it’s slow at the start, and at times it’s a little predictable. But though the previews made The Postman look like Dances With Wolves crossed with Under Siege, this science-fiction-western is not really an action film. What action it has is not bad, but Costner is more comfortable with gentler material and two-person confrontations…which even affects the finale. The movie’s length also allows some pretty well-done, unforced character development.
The scenery is spectacular: Northwest landscapes with buried hints of the civilization that stood where forests grow anew. The film doesn’t play up the science-fiction-ness in the storyline: it makes its brave new world actually feel fairly natural – with a few silly touches. Too many people seem conveniently to be not that smart, making the whole enterprise skirt dangerously close to having an Idiot Plot, what SF author Ted Sturgeon [modern-day note: actually it was James Blish] once called a storyline that only works if all the characters are idiots. Thankfully, there are smart main characters: Patton, the capable and easy-on-the-eyes newcomer Olivia Williams, and Larenz Tate (Dead Presidents) as an idealistic young man who named himself Ford for an odd reason. In the end, this turns out to be a positive message film – overwrought and uneven, but interesting.
[Modern-day notes: I had the opposite experience with the 1998 film adaptation of What Dreams May Come; I liked the film less the more I thought about it post-screening. Anyway, I more or less liked The Postman, as did several of the reviewers at Film Score Monthly and Ain’t It Cool’s Harry Knowles; in fact, later I e-mailed Harry and got his permission to reprint his positive review (where he called it the best of Costner's B movies) in my section of the Hermiston Herald).]