It's been just two years since the Academy nominated the Italian film Il Postino (a.k.a. The Postman) for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. The arrival of Kevin Costner's epic The Postman raises the possibility of confusion in the Oscar history books -- a very slim possibility, a minuscule possibility ... heck, let's face it, it raises no possibility.
Even though Costner's last outing as director/star, Dances with Wolves, nabbed Best Picture, Director and Screenplay, this post-apocalyptic follow-up is too standard-issue to impress even the resolutely middlebrow minds of Academy voters.
Call it what you will -- Waterworld on dry land, Dances with Mailbags -- The Postman offers nothing that hasn't been done before with far greater style and excitement ... and at half the length.
Indeed, at two hours and 58 minutes, The Postman is an epic-sized inflation of very modest material. While it doesn't cleave as slavishly to the story of Road Warrior as Waterworld did, it still bears enough similarities to the George Miller/Mel Gibson classic to invite comparison at every turn.
Following one of the all-time classic plot patterns, Costner casts himself as a nameless Everyman, trying to survive in the rubble of a fallen America, circa 2013. War has destroyed the country's fabric, leaving communities isolated by fear and suspicion. The film opens with a voice-over explaining the war -- so close to the intro to Road Warrior that it feels like a rewrite. The visual shows Everyman hauling his ass across the Utah salt flats -- literally. He is leading his mule, Bill, with whom he performs a traveling stage show very loosely adapted from Macbeth.
His performance is just amusing enough to earn him an occasional handout. But before long, he is captured by General Bethlehem (Will Patton), a fascist leader, and forced to join Bethlehem's army, which is terrorizing the Pacific Northwest.
It's fully 45 minutes before our hero escapes the army and discovers the U.S. Postal Service uniform that changes his life. Seeing the opportunity for a new scam, he claims to be a postal representative of a newly re-formed U.S. government, headquartered in Minneapolis. Armed with a mailbag of 16-year-old letters, he bluffs his way into the town of Pineview, where, he explains, he is entitled by law to lodging and provisions. He also manages to pick up a by-the-numbers romantic interest in the person of a young widow (Olivia Williams), who proves to be more heroic than Our Hero.
His fantasies about a new government bring a ray of hope to the dispirited townspeople. He soon becomes legendary as The Postman; he swears in young Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate) as a postal employee just to get rid of the kid. But after The Postman's departure, Ford takes the initiative to establish a local postal operation.
What started as a scam burgeons into a promise of a return to order, and The Postman, despite himself, must grow into the heroic role that has been fabricated for him. And, since Bethlehem's power is dependent on continued anarchy, the despot targets the new postal system for destruction.
The symbolism is upfront and reasonably logical: The postal service makes as good an icon of government stability as any, without invoking the sort of militarism that is here reserved for the bad guys. And The Postman's character growth is accomplished believably.
There are a few minor inconsistencies in the setup. The film takes place in 2013, only 16 years from now; at least one character is identified as a Vietnam vet. Yet no one, young or old, except The Postman, seems to remember anything of the pre-apocalyptic culture. In one of the film's few effective jokes, the hero is asked who the new President is; unprepared, he spits out the first name that comes to mind, a name that everyone in the movie audience recognizes, but no one on-screen does -- even though that's supposed to be us up there.
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While the pattern of The Postman's plot is still effective no matter how many times it's been done, the film's extreme length saps its energy. Everything takes far longer than necessary, as though sheer heft will grant the story some importance, some iconic significance far beyond what the film earns. The final product is never dull; but there's no reason it couldn't have been shortened considerably and improved in the process. A little more wit would have been welcome as well.
As it is, given the resemblances to Road Warrior, it's hard not to sit there wishing Costner had lifted the right elements from Miller's film: Miller, creating a transcendent pulp classic, knew how to set up the mythic underpinnings in shorthand, while keeping the action (and the camera) constantly moving. For Costner, pulp isn't enough; he de-emphasizes the action and stresses the "serious" elements, so intent on epic scale that everything feels mired in pretension.
Directed by Kevin Costner. With Kevin Costner, Will Patton, Larenz Tate and Olivia Williams.