On Christmas Day 1997, moviegoers had an embarrassment of enticing options. New openings included James L. Brooks’ As Good as It Gets, Quentin Tarantino’s much-anticipated Pulp Fiction followup Jackie Brown and, in select theaters, Kundun and Wag the Dog. If none of those appealed, they could check out recent releases like the James Bond sequel Tomorrow Never Dies or Titanic, the latter in its second week of release and already well on its way to becoming the most financially successful movie of all time (for a while, anyway).
Alternatively, they could see another high-profile release, a three-hour post-apocalyptic drama starring and directed by Kevin Costner, stepping behind the camera for the first time since the Best Picture-winning Dances With Wolves. Overwhelmingly, however, they opted not to. The Postman opened in eighth place on Christmas, barely beating out a live-action adaptation of Mr. Magoo starring Leslie Nielsen. By the end of the week, it had lost even that edge. Soon it would serve as an instant punchline, or an example of a star’s ego run amok. Who wanted to see a movie that used the postal service as a stand-in for all that was good, right and equitable about the United States of America anyway? What possible relevance could that have?
As recent events have shown, well, quite a lot actually. The United States Postal Service recently became the subject of one alarming news item after another thanks to outrage that the Trump administration may be doing its best to sabotage it as a way of suppressing voting by mail, a practice it seems to feel will hurt its chances for reelection. (Actually, you can pretty much scratch “may be” and “seems to feel” since President Trump has publicly copped to the plan, like a Bond villain confident he’s neutralized 007 and can share his evil schemes.) It turns out that, when it comes to democracy-sustaining institutions, the postal service is pretty fundamental. If someone needed to, say, rebuild a collapsed civilization from the ground up, then swift, efficient, non-partisan mail delivery would have to be part of the plan.
Were we too quick, then, to dismiss Costner’s vision of the far-off year of 2013 back in 1997, one in which he plays a drifter who takes a postman’s uniform from a corpse, uses it to scheme food and shelter from an unsuspecting town by claiming to be the representative of a restored U.S. government, then inadvertently starts a chain reaction in which a revived postal service becomes the vanguard in the fight against a fascist strongman?
Well, yes and no, and it’s easiest to start with the nos.
The Postman arrived in theaters as a wounded beast. Two years earlier Costner had starred in Waterworld, an ultra-expensive post-apocalyptic action film in which he played a loner who reluctantly becomes a savior. The film seemed destined to go down as an expensive failure. It ended up more-or-less breaking even, but rather than treating this as a bullet dodged, Costner used The Postman to revisit similar themes on dry land. Waterworld’s bad buzz sounded like a gentle hum compared to what surrounded The Postman, which arrived dogged by stories of disastrous test screenings and Warner Bros.’ failed attempts to get Costner to cut the three-hour film to a more digestible length, pleas Costner’s A-list status gave him no reason to entertain. After all, he’d given the studio The Bodyguard, JFK, Tin Cup and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. They owed him.
Critics weren’t nearly as accommodating, many using the film’s title and theme as an opportunity to trot out variations on “The Postman fails to deliver.” (Horse & Rider magazine, however, did have a short item praising the star’s riding skills.) Some threw around the term “vanity project,” a tough-to-dispute accusation when leveled at a film in which Costner cast himself as a messianic figure, found small roles for each of his kids and sang a duet with Amy Grant over the closing credits. (Also, he looks amazing, apparently visiting a post-apocalyptic stylist between key scenes.)
Others pointed to the film’s inflated sense of self-importance, with Roger Ebert singling out a scene in which Costner’s character, after thundering past a kid (played by Costner’s son) who just misses the chance to hand him a letter, turns around as if spurred by “some sixth sense” then “gallop[s] back to him, snatching up the letter at full tilt.” The action shifts to slow-motion. The music swells. The mail gets picked up, and it’s depicted with the starry-eyed reverence of Robert Redford hitting a home run at the end of The Natural.
The film is filled with similar moments, scenes that threaten to tip over into pretension, and often do, and its deadly pace and other distracting details still prove frustrating. (Much of the film’s story coincides with one character’s improbably long pregnancy.) Yet time has a funny way of catching up with some movies and The Postman seems like a more pointed, prescient film now than it did in 1997, when its very concept struck many as laughable.
“There are some movie ideas so fundamentally goofy that they cannot be made into a good film,” Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington wrote in a dismissive review. He then asked, “Would this movie have worked as well if Costner had disguised himself as, say, a pool cleaner, a traveling encyclopedia salesman or Johnny Appleseed?”
Working from a screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland, Costner’s film adapts a much-praised 1985 novel by David Brin, and while you can quibble with the execution, it’s built on solid thematic ground. “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,” Brin wrote on his website in 1998. Taking its cues from the author, Costner’s film is less interested in exploring a civilization’s rot than what might grow from it; how some ideas prove too powerful snuff out; and how a humble USPS uniform can have a symbolic power that, say, a pool-cleaning outfit never could. Costner works in broad strokes and traffics in unabashed patriotism and images of idealized Americana, but it doesn’t quite invite the eyerolls in 2020 that it did in 1997.
It’s tempting to get mired in nostalgia, to attribute a civility to 1990s politics that just wasn’t there. It was a time of hatefulness and division, not unlike our own, but it also never seemed as if the guardrails were about to fall off. Usually lost in the tributes to George H.W. Bush that followed his 2018 death were mentions of his campaign’s racist tactics, or his administration’s use of dumb issues like a proposed ban on flag burning as a distraction from more substantive discussions. But when Bush lost, he stepped away. The machinery of democracy, however imperfect, kept turning. Any other possibility belonged to, well, science-fiction movies.
Here’s Brin on The Postman again: “It’s a story about how much we take for granted — and how desperately we would miss the little, gracious things that connect us today.” And how does Costner’s film play now that an institution we take for granted — the one at the center of its story — is now under threat?
It’s still overlong, still corny as hell, still features a bunch of scenes with Tom Petty for no particular reason, and still tries to use one of the least exciting fight scenes ever filmed as a climax. But it also looks like a warning we’d do well to heed, a reminder that the world we live in could easily fall apart and that the symbols of that world only have power if we continue in believing in — and fighting for — them.