July 4, 2012 by abbyo
Happy 4th of July, readers! Time to fire up those backyard grills, grab a handful of fireworks from the nearest roadside stand (staffed by part-time carnies and snaggletoothed bikers of course!) and get your patriotism on. Of course, nobody likes exploiting red-blooded Americana like Hollywood—just take a look at the scads of blockbusters we have to that effect: “Glory,” “Top Gun,” “Red Dawn” and of course “The Patriot” and “Independence Day,” both of which have American pride in their very names (and, coincidentally, were both made by Roland Emmerich, who’s German. Go figure).
But there’s a point where that celebration of all the things that make our country great goes just beyond the point of no return. Today, we’re examining one of those specimens: Kevin Costner’s 1997 debacle “The Postman.” It’s a movie that wants to serve as a giant testament to all the greatest American accomplishments, but instead becomes a lumbering spectacle, with failed attempts at clever humor, and even more attempts at earnestness that become unintentionally hilarious.
So, here’s the deal, guys. In a future that’s just one year from now, but seemed a lot further away in 1997 (or in the 80s, when the short story it was based on was published), the world has been ravaged by some kind of unexplained apocalypse. There is no government, and people just wander from town to town looking for money and food. One of these folks is Costner’s drifter, an amiable loner who performs crappy versions of Shakespeare for paying townsfolk, presumably because they have nothing better to spend their money on. After he’s conscripted by (and escapes from) a crazed militia led by self-styled “general” Will Patton, Costner discovers the skeleton of a mailman in a truck, along with a sack of undelivered letters. Donning the dead man’s uniform, Costner adopts a new identity as a postal carrier, re-establishing a mail route on the west coast, recruiting a ragtag group of rebellious pony express riders, and eventually creating a resistance force to take Patton down, and re-establish the U.S. government.
Could you tell by the description that this is a 3-hour movie? It is. Massive in scope, length and size of failure, “The Postman” is a red, white and blue clunker that goes out of its way to casually (and sometimes not-so-casually) highlight every great thing the U.S. has ever done or created. This includes, but isn’t limited to, democracy, the Moon Walk, the automobile, the microwave oven and Tang. But the biggest star here—no surprise—is the postal service. According to Costner’s movie, there is no better American institution than the U.S. mail, and no position nobler than that of mailman. Carrying the mail from one town to another is not a banal, thankless job, but a sacred duty that people are willing to die doing. In the world of this movie, being a postman is sexy.
Of course, in addition to this movie being a sloppy love letter to American idealism, it’s also a movie about a post-apocalyptic future, a form of movie that presents its own unique issues. In my review of “The Apple,” I mentioned that it’s difficult to accurately predict what the future will be like, so, understandably, sometimes movies from the past that are set in “the distant future” don’t always hit their mark. However, I doubt very much that “The Postman’s” vision of the future would even have seemed realistic to anyone in the late 90s, specifically because it takes place in a time that’s only 16 years forward from the time of its release. Granted, apocalyptic events were supposed to have occurred during those 16 years. But that doesn’t excuse some of what “The Postman” tries to pull off.
Most bizarre is the apparent erasure of the entire population’s knowledge of history and culture. For one thing, everyone seems to have forgotten the works of Shakespeare; because the only person other than Costner who recognizes the plays is Will Patton’s nutty general. Costner is also able to make up a fictional President named Richard Starkey, without a single person recognizing that Costner basically just told them that Ringo Starr is now the leader of the free world. Towards the end of the film, Tom Petty puts in a cameo, in which he plays himself as the mayor of a town Costner visits. Here’s a clip:
Note that while Costner recognizes that Petty is famous, he never realizes that he’s TOM FREAKING PETTY.
I can kind of see why “The Postman” seemed like a good idea to start with. It’s a movie that wants to be about the never-say-die spirit of America, the basic creations that made our country great, and our capacity for positive change. But unfortunately, through poor writing, poor acting and poor direction, it becomes an overstuffed, seemingly endless picture of sentimentality and simplicity. In a way, I think Costner actually accomplished what he set out to do, just not in the way he originally intended. He wanted to make a movie about the America we like to think we’re part of. What he made was a movie that perfectly describes the America we actually live in—big, loud and self-important, without actually having much to say.