Sunday, December 20, 2020

Kevinography, part 6: The Postman (1997)

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This is part 6 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them. 
Synopsis: In the distant post-apocalyptic future of 2013, a man (Kevin Costner) wanders around rural America with his ass (not Kevin Costner). He shuns civilization, but he's in need of food, and so he makes a living by performing a crude version of Shakespeare in the villages. He gets swept up by the evil General Bethlehem (Will Patton), who recruits him into his army. The man manages to escape and stumbles on the remains of a postman. He opts for a desperate gambit, pretending to be a postman of the "Restored United States" to get some food. It works way better than intended, and soon a fan founds a copycat enterprise that starts a revolution against Bethlehem, drafting the wayward Postman into it as a leading figure...

Analysis: Coming fresh from the disaster of his post-apocalyptical story "Waterworld" with its weird setting, Costner in 1997 decided to stake his waning star power on...a post-apocalyptical story in a weird setting. I'm not entirely sure the man was making rational decisions anymore or whether he just resigned to his fate of fading into the second row of actors and wanted to milk the studio system for a passion project while he still commanded some clout. 

The movie is (very loosely) based on David Brin's 1980s novel of the same title. I haven't read it, but from the Wikipedia synopsis, the movie takes the general ideas, excises the middle section and tries to make it into a coherent story. Given that this movie gets the usual Costner treatment of a running time well in excess of two-and-a-half hours (seriously, what is it with Costner and long movies?), it's all the more surprising that a coherent story doesn't really want to emerge. 

I'm uncertain who's fault this is, exactly. Some of it lies in the cinematography for sure, other in the script, some in casting. Let's look at them in turn. 

Cinematography first. Whoever was in charge continually emphasizes epic, pathos-laden shots over continuity and logic. This is only seemingly a small problem, because it constantly breaks the believability of the setting and the tone. Let me give you some examples. 

One of the defining shots of the movie that gets picked up on the meta-level in the finale, when the statue of the postman recreating it is revealed, is when the Postman rides past a house. A young boy storms out, holding up a letter, but is ignored. Sadly, he turns back to mum. But wait! The Postman holds his horse, considers for a moment. The boy, determined and hopefully, raises the letter again (cue closeup). Costner urges the horse onward, passing the boy in full gallop and taking the letter in a slo-mo-shot before vanishing in a dust-cloud. In the exact same direction whence he came. Where is he going? He was too hard on a schedule to wait for the boy, but now, he rides just the same way back for the sake of a cool shot? 

Later in the movie, hostages are to be shot. The sheriff, an early doubter and then full convert to the cause (perfectly serviceable arc), is among them. He urges the Postman to ignore the hostages, so Bethlehem shoots them all. Cue to closeup of the sheriff's hand, clutching some letters, as the bad guys ride off in the background. Where did these letters come from? Did he carry them with him in case they were needed for a pathos-laden shot? 

Last one. Costner's side-kick, Ford, printed a cartoon of Bethlehem decrying his "tyranney", and Costner corrects the spelling. Later, Bethlehem finds one of these cartoons and is pissed off, declaring in great pathos to wage total war. Then he slowly turns to the camera and proclaims "You spelled tyranny wrong". This is meant to re-emphasize the theme of him being this educated, intelligent guy at the helm of thugs, but - for reasons we'll get to - this doesn't work. In the context of this scene, however, how it's shot and cut, Bethlehem actually states he's going to war BECAUSE THEY MADE A SPELLING ERROR. Seriously, look at the scene. 

Now, you might say: "Stefan, stop all the nitpicking. This doesn't matter." Normally, I'd agree. But here, the script is just so at odds with these shots that it really sticks out. And that leads directly to said script. It's incoherent, to say the least. 

Let's start with the Postman himself. He's introduced by a voice-over of his daughter as a bad-ass loner, shot over a truly epic soundtrack (seriously, check it out, this is one of the better ones). But immediately in his first scene, he's shaken by a deer he thinks might be a hidden adversary before moving into a village and performing Shakespeare, trying to sneak off to avoid war and meekly trying to reason with Bethlehem that he doesn't want to be a fighter. I find the latter character much more interesting, but he's not the guy from the prologue. 

Over the rest of the first half of the movie, he's mostly a hustler, trying to cheat his way into as easy a life as possible. He lucks into the post van and into a letter he can deliver, gets a lot of stuff and inadvertently starts a movement of discontents that grows into a rebellion - all of which happens off camera, because he gets wounded and is isolated in the woods with his wayward care-taker Abby, trying to prolong their stay as much as he can to avoid going out again. 

This is all cool stuff, and he never really gets on board with the idea of the rebellion after seeing the cost, wanting to surrender to Bethlehem - a ploy that's foiled by Ford and Bethlehem both. But then, in the last twenty minutes, he suddenly decides more or less on a whim to finish the fights, recruits an army in a twenty second montage and leads it into battle flying the star-spangled banner. 

His main antagonist, Bethlehem, is clearly intended as a dangerous fascist, espousing some incredibly murky racial ideology, very not murky sexism and a crude belief in the right of the strongest. You can see that they're going for a truly pathetic human being, masking his own insecurities and insufficiencies behind violence. But this never really works. Part of it is that Will Patton just can't really carry the role (he's great for the every-day man turned dictator role, don't get me wrong, but the plot also requires him to be the best close-up fighter of the whole army But the other part is inconsistencies, him switching between menace and cartoonish baffoon at a heart-beat. 

Another big problem is the setting. While I like the idea of a post-apocalypse with working societal structures, groups that survive because they band together and work with and for each other rather than doing the "Walking Dead" schtick of "THE GROUP", the movie dances on two weddings at once. On the one hand, we get these villages and small towns that are beacons of civilization, cradles of its ultimate rebirth, but on the other hand all of it is framed in a rural America vs. the elites way, something of a theme with Costner. 

The good guys in the towns and villages are a hard-working, straight-forward folk with little pretense and education, but their heart in the right place. All they lack is a smart guy to lead them. Cue to Costner. This is VERY 90s; while the general trope is workable even today, never ever would the guy who knows Shakespeare run the place in today's America. He's be a funny side-character killed in the first incident. 

But cliches like this in tandem with the pathos of the cinematography really destroy the very interesting setup of the wayward revolutionary and the theme of the rebirth of civilization, stripping it to a simple morality tale in which the rural people incorporate the UNITED STATES OF MURICA (in capital letters) and you only need to utter the ridiculous phrase of "I believe in the United States" to win against the bad guy and get his whole army to lay down their arms. 

Way back when I started writing movie reviews, in the very early aughts, The Postman was one of the first I did. I still remember my griping about the final battle getting called off for a boring duel between Postman and Bethlehem and stating that this movie was "entertaining even though it does everything wrong" and it being worth a watch because of that. I gave it a C. 

I stand by the grade and the latter half of the statement, but the movie's problem is decidedly not the lack of an epic battle in the end. Rather, it's the muddling of its message and themes. Arguably, there's too much battle and pathos in it to begin with. A story about the rebirth of civilization gets meshed into a story about the rebirth of Americana, ultimately having nothing of note to say about either and remaining an artifact of the sensibilities of its time. It has a lot in common with The West Wing in that regard, come to think of it.

The verdict:
Watchable for the potential, but not on its own feet. It's perfectly obvious why this was the nail in the coffin for Costner's star career.

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