I have an embarrassing confession to make. With pretty major reservations, I liked 1997's The Postman. Also, I sometimes dress my cats up in doll clothes and hold elaborate tea parties for them. Now I know what you're probably thinking: what kind of nut job publicly professes to enjoy a critically reviled, three-hour long post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner flop? Am I secretly bucking to get violently ejected from the Royal Fraternal Order Of Film Critics?
Hey, I'm just as surprised as you are. Heck, before being pleasantly shocked by The Postman's non-shitty-osity I planned to irreverently propose a third and climactic entry in what I would lovingly dub the post-apocalyptic "What the fuck was Kevin Costner thinking?" trilogy. In keeping with the constantly ballooning gigantism of the series, it'd be a four-hour long, $400 million sci-fi epic in which Costner would play a poo-eating man-goat who must defeat an evil two-headed kangaroo-man played by Ice-T and Christopher Walken in order to save a world that has been reduced to a damp, nightmarish swamp by excessive cellphone use. It'd be called Swampiverse. Costner's ornery, telekinetic (did I mention his character is telekinetic?) man-goat would be introduced eating his own poo and strangling an orphan. It'd pretty much go downhill from there. I realize it doesn't make much sense for goat-men or two-headed kangaroos to live in a swamp but hey, is that really any more preposterous than anything in Waterworld or The Postman?
Now I obviously can't use that idea. I suppose it's possible that I'm suffering from a film critic version of Stockholm Syndrome and I'm now starting to identify with and even romanticize the failed movie-makers tormenting me with their disasters. Since I am professionally obligated to spend three hours traversing through one more post-apocalyptic hellscape with Kevin Costner and his Texas-sized ego, I guess part of me figured I might as well lie back and enjoy it.
Then again, I am also descended from postmen myself, so maybe I'm a little biased. My grandfather was a lifelong employee of the Post Office and my dad sorted mail in college. If The Postman had struck it big at the box-office, we no doubt would have been treated to a whole slew of post-apocalyptic sci-fi blockbusters shamelessly romanticizing put-upon, widely mocked low-level functionaries, rousing action movies with stirring titles like The DMV Worker, The IRS Auditor, and The Welfare Fraud Investigator..
It's also possible, if not likely, that Costner intentionally made a movie as repellent and off-putting as Waterworld precisely so that any follow-up would look good by comparison. I know that during the film's first few scenes, I found myself disproportionately relieved and impressed that Costner was once again playing a likeable fellow who oozed relaxed charm and wasn't a pee-drinking sociopath.
Costner here plays an amiable drifter in a post-apocalyptic future who makes a meager living performing a hodgepodge of Shakespeare with his donkey for makeshift audiences too gullible and naïve to realize what a terrible actor he is or how badly he mangles the Bard's words. Yes, that's right: Costner begins the film performing Shakespeare with his donkey. Like Waterworld, this is a profoundly strange film, but I found its idiosyncrasies infinitely more likeable than those of Waterworld.
Costner's aimless days slaughtering the Bard reach an abrupt end when he's conscripted into the deranged militia of Will Patton, a disciple of a self-help guru and businessman named Nathan Holn, who laid down the eight rules by which all Holnists must live. They are: Law 1: Obey all orders without question. Law 2: Punishment will be swift. Law 3: Mercy is for the weak. Law 4: Terror will defeat reason. Law 5: Your allegiance is to the clan. Law 6: Justice can be dictated. Law 7: Any clansman may challenge for leadership of the clan. Law 8: There is only one penalty: Death.
With the exception of Law number seven, that could double as the core beliefs of the Bush administration. The Holnists keep their reluctant soldiers in line by, um, showing them The Sound Of Music–I told you this was a strange film–but Costner eventually escapes and discovers the skeleton of a mailman along with a cache of undelivered letters.
Costner borrows both the postman's clothes and his professional identity. He then begins positing himself as both a postman and a representative of a restored United States. Suddenly people beaten down by civil war, rampaging militias, and all-around social decay find a reason to feel optimistic. Costner travels from town to town, spreading hope like a virus. An army of postmen and women spring up around Costner dispensing renewed hope for democracy and equality along with letters, postcards, and junk mail.
More than anything, Costner is selling a dream of democracy and the promise of the United States. It's a hopeful lie that becomes true simply because enough people believe in it. Though they're forever tied together in the public mind, Waterworld and The Postman differ dramatically in tone. Where Costner was quite literally a cold fish in Waterworld, here he's Mr. Personality, Jesus in a postman's uniform and a charismatic evangelist for truth, justice, and the American way.
As I said earlier, I liked The Postman with major, major reservations. The overwrought score runs the gamut from "soaring" to "super-soaring" to "soaring to the highest reaches of heaven on the gilded wings of a thousand cherubs." Costner here seems to reason that if a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, then a dump truck full of saccharine will do the job ten times as efficiently.
In its insanely overreaching last half hour, the film's sentimentality level goes from "seriously pushing it" to "off the fucking meter." (Spoilers ahead!) Late in the film, Costner's plucky baby mama Olivia Williams give birth to an infant named Hope cause, well, you can probably figure that out yourself. The Postman's bizarre climax finds Costner engaging in a ragingly homoerotic slow-motion wrestling match with Patton to determine nothing less than the fate of Western Civilization. Just when it seems like Costner can't get any more nauseatingly hopeful and optimistic, the film concludes with a ridiculously sappy cop-out happy ending that suggests that the future land mass formerly known as the United States was just one hope-inspiring postman from returning to normal in just a few society-rebuilding decades. Oh and did I mention the part where Tom Petty plays himself as the good ol' boy mayor of a pacifist future-city? Or that Costner's sidekick (Larenz Tate) calls himself Ford Lincoln Mercury (somewhere, Idiocracy director Mike Judge was taking notes)? I told you this movie was nucking futs.
Yet by that point, The Postman had worn down my defenses through sheer perseverance, pluck, and perversity. It's Capra-corn pure and simple, a big, wet sloppy valentine to democracy, hope, and the American way. It must have taken enormous resolve for Costner not to end the film with the entire cast and crew grinning straight into the camera while chanting "USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!".
In an essay about the film that's surprisingly gracious considering the incredible liberties it took with his source material, Postman author David Brin compares watching the film to "having a great big Golden Retriever jump on your lap and lick your face while waving a flag tied to its tail. It's big, floppy, uncoordinated, overeager, sometimes gorgeous–occasionally a bit goofy–and so big-hearted that something inside of you has to give…that is, if you like that sort of thing."
That seems about right, though I think The Postman is phenomenally goofy, not just a little bit. I was anticipating a dour, humorless, self-important epic. What I got was a surprisingly moving cornball fable with a goofy sense of humor and a disarming sense of its own ridiculousness.
Oh and Mr. Costner, if you're interested in my Swampiverse idea, it can be yours for a mere $15 million. Those ridiculous cost overruns have to start somewhere.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success