Kevin Costner returns to directing with a film that, on the outset, looks like a cross between Dances With Wolves and Waterworld. That description, however, doesn’t completely fit this postapocalyptic western (based on the novel by David Brin), which is mildly entertaining if you look past the cheese.
Set in the year 2013, the world has undergone almost every crisis imaginable. There has been nuclear war, and a following nuclear winter (which has just finally blown over), plague has struck the major cities, and riots and civil war have toppled the government. Amid all this, a fascist leader named Richard Holn has started a militaristic cult (the Holnists). Although Holn has died, the cult lives on under the rule of General Bethlehem (Will Patton), and continues to terrorize the populace.
Individual communities have survived, though without power and with dwindling supplies, things have regressed. Former suburbs have been stockaded like towns out of the old west, and animals have once again become the chief source of transportation.
Amid all this ruin, a lone man (Kevin Costner) wanders from town to town in search of food and shelter. At first, he gains these as a wandering entertainer, delivering one-man Shakespearean plays to the populace. However, later on he discovers a more elaborate ploy.
He accidentally stumbles across a postal truck, crashed and forgotten almost 15 years before. He dons the postal uniform, and at the next town he weaves a tall tale. He claims that the U.S. government has been restored back east. He has been sent to reestablish communication routes, and the restored Congress has decreed that all settlements must provide postal workers with food and shelter.
His ploy works…overwhelmingly so. He is struck by the town’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge about the “new government”. To them, he is a figure of hope, and they drown him in requests and letters to deliver to their lost loved ones. He is even asked by a local girl, Abby (Olivia Williams), to impregnate her (since her husband was rendered sterile by disease).
The postman travels from town to town, using the same scam to the same degree of success. However, he soon find his legend has outgrown himself. He discovers a settlement of young followers (led by Larenz Tate), who idolize him as a superhuman figure, and who have devoted themselves to establishing communication lines between the local communities. All of this flies in the face of General Bethlehem, who sees himself as the feudal lord of these settlements, and he sets out to destroy the bringer of hope: the postman.
Overall, The Postman depicts a post-apocalypse world more believable than many we’ve seen before on film (in movies such as Waterworld or The Road Warrior). The fact that shortages are occurring in a society without structure is something that never seemed to occur to its oil-guzzling predecessors.
The movie’s biggest flaw is its editing. At nearly three hours in length, there’s wasn’t much editing done, but what limited editing there is is done poorly. The movie breaks up into a confusing jumble during any of its montage sequences (the most prominent example is in the buildup to the finale, where what is going on makes absolutely no sense until you get there and understand what the filmmakers were trying to hint at).
Another problem with the film, which is more easily overlooked, is its overall hokey tone. Even if you are successful in wresting yourself away from the modern world’s cynical view of the postal service, some of the film’s key moments are so over-the-top in their earnestness that they border on the hillarious, handily defeating the purpose. Two key examples: a little girl “spontaneously” stepping out of the crowd to “touchingly” sing America the Beautiful, and an overdone scene involving a little boy trying to hand deliver a letter to the postman as he rides by (a scene which is recalled once again, to an unintentionally humorous effect, later in the film).
Still, with all its faults, there are a few interesting “epic-worthy” scenes in The Postman, and the underlying concept (of an unwilling messiah) is interesting and deserved to be explored more fully.