A big canvas rendering of a passionately expressed vision of what the United States was, and is meant to be, “The Postman” is a rare epic film that is actually about something. The clarity with which its ideas are articulated proves variable, and the hokiness and straight-faced sincerity of some of them will make Kevin Costner’s first film as a director since the Oscar-winning “Dances With Wolves” seven years ago an easy target for highbrow and cynical critics and viewers. At the same time, this involving, impressively filmed futuristic drama could catch on in Middle America if adverse advance impressions , largely created by a misleading trailer, can be overcome quickly enough for viewers to check out this risky, highly personal epic. In other words, B.O. outlook for this ruggedly entertaining effort is quite questionable unless word-of-mouth among a responsive public clicks in.
Set just 16 years from now in the wake of devastating war in which most of the United States, including the government, is wiped out, this adaptation of David Brin’s 1985 SF novel bears superficial but meaningless resemblances to such other post-apocalyptic landmarks as “The Road Warrior” and, unfortunately, the megabudget Costner starrer “Waterworld.” Although “The Postman” conveys a thoroughly imagined vision of a future society, its basic concerns are actually far from those of traditional sci-fi, as it quickly comes to feel more like a Western than anything else.
And while the filmmakers might not want to admit it about such an enormously expensive undertaking, the main motivation driving the picture is indisputably ideological, which fact alone makes it a fascinating anomaly among big studio Hollywood projects. It’s as if “Billy Jack” met “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” in “Futureworld,” which begins to suggest some of the diverse influences at work in a film that may be branded reactionary by left-wingers but is actually a curiously anti-rugged individualist statement that stresses the overriding importance of community and continuity.
Opening section is a bit too leisurely and not entirely promising, as Costner’s solitary wayfarer, accompanied only by a mule, wanders the wasteland that is America and comes across the remains of a Union 76 service station (the allusion to the founding of the country fully intended) and, subsequently, a small community.
Perhaps inspired by the fact that the inhabitants look like they come straight from the Middle Ages, the nameless vagabond delivers an amateurish one-man show of Shakespeare before being captured by a marauding band known as the Holnists.
Remainder of the pic’s first 50 minutes is devoted to dramatizing, in often grisly detail, the fascist agenda of this group, which is led by the strutting, posing General Bethlehem (Will Patton), a self-styled dictator whose kinship to Hitler is reinforced by his aspirations as a painter. Bethlehem and his minions preside over an army and forced labor camp dedicated to force, the weeding out of the weak and ethnically “deficient and impure,” and, above all, the eradication of any and all vestiges of the old USA, the better to insure their own continued dominance.
The Holnists’ base camp is an enormous, gaping mine pit, where at night showings of old movies are held; buffs will be amused at the reactions of the brutalized viewers, who vociferously reject the violence of the Dolph Lundgren actioner “Universal Soldier.” but passionately embrace “The Sound of Music,” which reps a peaceful, comforting former world so entirely at odds with what they know.
Branded on his arm and viewed with suspicious interest by Bethlehem due to his relative intelligence and book knowledge, Costner’s drifter plays it cool and cautiously until he is able to make a daring escape from the totalitarian compound.
Looking for refuge in the forest, he comes across an abandoned old mail Jeep, puts on the uniform he finds there and, in a fit of practical inspiration motivated by hunger, grabs the mail and, at a small town called Pineview, announces that he is there to deliver 15-year-old mail in his role as a representative of the restored United States.
Viewed with great skepticism at first by the skittish citizens, the Postman wins them over simply because they want and need to believe in something.
As it becomes clear that the American West, where all the action unfolds, consists of isolated tiny pockets of surviving humanity, all of which are threatened and occasionally preyed upon by the Holnists, it also becomes believable that even the lie that the Postman represents will be willingly accepted if it provides a vestige of hope for the future.
During his brief stay, the Postman is approached by the beautiful Abby (Olivia Williams) to impregnate her with the full consent of her impotent husband. After their one night together, Bethlehem raids the town, in the process killing Abby’s husband and taking her prisoner.
The Postman gets away, but not before he has inspired a local fellow, Ford (Larenz Tate), who desperately needs a purpose in life, to become the country’s second postman.
After wounding Bethlehem and escaping, Abby joins the Postman to endure a long, isolated winter during her pregnancy, and by spring there is an entire band of postal couriers, for whom the Postman now serves as a mythical figure. When the real thing re-emerges onto the scene, he is forced into the role of the reluctant leader, a hero whose credentials are fundamentally false but who nonetheless represents an overwhelmingly important idea, that of the rebirth of the nation’s democratic principles.
After travels further into the Pacific Northwest, the band leads the first open revolt against the Holnist forces, which results in murderous reprisals by Bethlehem. When all appears lost and even the Postman is well ready to quit the cause, the rebels rise again, with all climaxing in a mano-a-mano battle between the two leaders.
The sweeping movement of the tale across half a continent, and the frequent action that facilitates it, is conveyed in a majestic and for the most part exciting manner. Visually, the pic is nearly always stimulating, thanks to the exceedingly striking and unfamiliar locations, the grand cinematography by Stephen Windon, Ida Random’s hand-crafted production design and John Bloomfield’s imaginatively patchwork costumes.
Certain key thematic notes are hit too heavily, and even though Costner and scenarists Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland have attempted to undercut some cloying moments with sly humor, the clunkiness of the more blatant and bald messages has not been circumvented altogether. Pic also has an undeniable streak of vanity when it comes to the Postman’s role as a would-be messiah, which is hammered home by a years-later epilogue that features the unveiling of a statue of yep, His Postalness.Despite the missteps, however, the drama is played with general conviction, which is a tribute to Costner’s undoubted passion for this material. Performing in his customary solid, understated manner, he also turns in a fluid job of direction that represents very personal work on an enormous scale.
Will Patton makes for a formidable, crafty, well-spoken villain, while British newcomer Olivia Williams is a real find, a gorgeous young actress who projects unmistakable inner strength and intelligence. Larenz Tate’s Postman acolyte is rather too eager-beaver, while Daniel von Bargen excels as Pineview’s suspicious sheriff.
Thematically, the film forwards a general argument in favor of the return to fundamental American values through the prism of a world from which they have forcibly been eliminated. Ironically, however, its traditional views are cloaked by a sensibility that most closely resembles that of the faintly rebellious, anti-establishment quasi-Westerns of the early ’70s, such as “McCabe,” “The Hired Hand,” “Bad Company” and others.
The blend produces a curious result, one that may or may not have an audience , but is nonetheless compelling in the heartfelt way it is presented.