Looking back at Kevin Costner's The Postman

News 26 Oct 2011 - 11:18

Kevin Costner's epic adventure The Postman was released in 1997 to a mixed reception. Here, Michael Reed argues that still it has a lot going for it…

"When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." Edmund Burke 

The Postman is a post-apocalyptic adventure based on the David Brin novel of the same name. Director and star Kevin Costner delivered a film of epic proportions, both in terms of storytelling and its hefty 178-minute running time.

Although an ambitious and heartfelt effort, the film received negative reviews, and did woeful business at the box office. You can summarise reviewers' negative assessment in one word: overindulgence. In deference to those critics, it does feature periodic descents into over-sentimentality, an obese approach to the cutting of scenes and dialogue that often clunks.

However, I contend that if viewed as a movie with a few flaws, it has much to offer. In fact, it may even be overlooked as one of the best entries in the post-apocalyptic film canon.

Background

Given the high-profile supposed failure of Waterworld (1995), his previous post-apocalyptic venture, it might seem surprising that Costner was allowed to embark on this project. However, a more detailed evaluation makes sense of the situation.

Firstly, despite its notoriety, Waterworld wasn't actually a financial disaster. Although it didn't immediately make back its massive $175m budget domestically, it did turn a healthy profit when worldwide ticket and home video sales were taken in to account.

Secondly, Costner was still on a career high at that point. His resumé was chock full of solid performances in films such as The Untouchables, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and Oliver Stone's JFK. In addition, he was still mainly known as Kevin ‘Dances With Wolves' Costner, the Oscar-winning director. Despite the relative disappointment of Waterworld, a Costner-helmed action movie must have seemed like a good bet.

The Book

"The Postman was written as an answer to all those post-apocalyptic books and films that seem to revel in the idea of civilization's fall." David Brin

The Postman is loosely based on the book of the same name, and like all adaptations, the filmmakers were faced with choices over the content. In a nutshell, the film is a somewhat different adventure featuring the same character, setting and premise.

Although a great read, the source novel has some problems of its own. Originally, it comprised three short novels that were later collated into a longer book in three parts. Part one is a highly entertaining story that follows the adventures of the main character as he journeys across the remnants of a disaster-ravaged North America.

Part two follows on from this, and details his contact with a technological civilisation that aspires to reform and reclaim the wasteland.

Part three is where the story takes a somewhat different tack, with a jarring transition into the realms science fiction rather than the speculative fiction of the first two parts. It's as though the author took every suggestion he had been given and tried to cram it in into the final part.

The Film

"Instinctively realizing that the tale ought to be about decency, heroism and hope, he threw out all the dismal old drafts and hired Brian Helgeland, esteemed screenwriter of L.A. Confidential." David Brin on Costner

The film adaptation strips out the futuristic elements of the latter parts of the book (genetic engineering, super computers) and grounds the story as a pure survivalist tale that could be considered a neo-western. Preserved is the premise of a scam, involving an old postal uniform, that is so effective that it soon takes on a life of its own.

As the loner who gets caught up in events and eventually comes good, Costner's character is fairly stock. Whether you enjoy his characterisation probably depends on how you feel about Costner. To some, he brings a likeable, intelligent, everyman quality to a heroic role. Others find his delivery corny. The Postman is certainly a classic slice of what Costner does best, in contrast with the unlikable, emotionally dull performances of, say, Viggo Mortensen in The Road (2009) or Denzel Washington in The Book Of Eli (2010).

The reluctant hero might seem like a well-worn movie trapping, but it reflects one of the main themes of the book, one that could be summed up with the saying: "All that is needed for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing." Throughout the book, the main character reflects that his quest is to find someone who is willing to take responsibility for things, and gradually, it dawns upon him that the mantle is his.

The film version of The Postman is, like most good adaptations, streamlined. For one thing, there is a well-defined hero and a definite, singular villain. In this role, Will Patton's General Bethlehem was a point of derision by critics of the time, but I suspect they misunderstood what he was trying to do. He is by turns both frightening and vicious, but there is always the hint of a pathetic Richard III type - a photocopier salesman who became a tyrant when the opportunity arose.

This isn't Darth Vader we're talking about. He's the epitome of a man filled with doubt about his manliness (it is implied that he is sexually impotent) and who compensates with grandiose displays of cruelty and bullying. That his cruelty eventually forces the hero to fight is also an idea lifted from the book.

Technically, the film is excellent, with sumptuous, cleverly composed cinematography and subtle use of CGI compositing. It's clear that no expense was spared in the location work, and this is combined with the liberal use of armies of extras. The visual grandeur can only be described as epic, and the exuberant soundtrack by James Newton Howard is the perfect accompaniment.

The smaller character parts are mostly well played. Rather than the naive but aspirational character in the book, Brit actress Olivia Williams plays Abby as a world-weary foil to the main character, with her comparable intelligence and sense of values. Larenz Tate as Ford gives a sometimes overly earnest performance that in some respects embodies the spirit of the entire film. Costner cast his own daughter in some scenes that threaten to become a bit creepy.

The well-defined hero and villain characters, the streamlined adventure story and Costner's typically upbeat delivery combine to produce a rousing, swashbuckling film, and I think this gives some clues as to why such a well-made film wasn't better received than it was. Back in the 90s, the fashion was for everything to be dark and edgy. Seven epitomises the appetite audiences had for grunge.

The biggest hit of 1997 was about a ship that sank. I suspect that if a yellow and brown tinged misery-fest like The Book Of Eli had turned up in the mid-90s, it would have been a huge success. Conversely, The Postman would probably have done much better if released today.

Criticism

Viewers will quickly spot some unforgivable shortcomings that can't be dismissed as a simple clash with the era's fashion whims. The Postman's reputation as film that plumbs the depths of sentimentality is, at least in part, deserved. Its near three-hour duration must have presented a challenge to distributors and audiences alike. Particularly, at the start of the final third, there are some scenes that could have been excised in order to improve the film. As a result of these extraneous scenes, this is the only stretch of the film that really does begin to drag.

One wonders what influence Costner had on the construction of the final cut. What was needed at this stage of production was the objectivity of a butcher with a sharp knife and a kind heart. There are many scenes, such as one involving a weird cameo by Tom Petty, that must have involved a lot of work at the time of filming, but didn't really work on screen.

We've seen it done before. For example, Richard Donner had a corker of an opening scene for Lethal Weapon involving a bar fight, but he removed it as it wasn't needed. The so-called director's cuts of both Alien and Aliens both contain reams of fascinating extra footage, and yet the directors themselves, and many fans, agree that the slimmer theatrical editions are definitive. Did Costner, I wonder, insist that some of his hero sequences be left intact due to ego?

This isn't to say that The Postman would have been the better film if it were substantially shorter. On the whole, it makes fairly good use of its length to deliver a grandiose story. However, cuts of a few minutes here and there would have improved the film a great deal. On a smaller scale, the blushes of the actors, due to moments of groan-worthy dialogue, could have been spared with some careful snipping within the scenes themselves. "You give out hope like it was candy in your pocket." Ouch.

Although the film is mawkish, this isn't to say that it would have been better if the script had been stripped of sentimentality. It's a film with a lot heart and some genuinely moving moments, for those who are willing to be moved.

Ironically, Costner gave up a starring role in Air Force One, a feel-good, patriotic action movie that did very well financially to make The Postman. Did he make the right decision? Most people who hated Air Force One would criticise it for its blandness, and for better or worse, The Postman is a film with a lot of heart. Despite its faults, it's hard to justify the criticism that it has been subjected to, while films such as the Mad Max series or the more recent spate of zombie apocalypse films don't seem to be judged by the same standards.

It's far from perfect, but if you're willing to overlook its shortcomings, The Postman is a rousing, touching, exciting adventure that has great deal to offer.

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Just saw the movie on TV while stuck in a cabin at a resort while vehicle is getting repaired. I really enjoyed it and wondered why I had not even heard of it before. Didn't mind it being long....in my situation. Had to look it up and see why it didn't achieve greater status. I am still thinking about it.

"You give out hope like it was candy in your pocket."
I actually found that the best line in the film. Real Costner stuff.

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