I admire Kevin Costner for trying to create "the kind of movie nobody makes anymore."
"The Postman," directed by and starring Costner, sets out to be honest, uplifting and patriotic as all get-out. It is a cautionary yarn about a drifter in a post-apocalyptic Pacific Northwest who inadvertently spreads faith and optimism to scattered encampments by posing as a mail carrier.
Like a Frank Capra version of "The Road Warrior," the film has an effective air of desperation turning to hope. But it trips on its ambition and falls into an abyss of clichés and dime novel allusions.
Beginning with a lengthy first act designed to establish that isolated towns of war refugees are being terrorized by a tyrannical militia, director Costner spends nearly a third of this three-hour epic getting to know half a dozen stock characters.
Will Patton plays General Bethlehem, the warlord behind a disorderly martial law. He's a power-monger with a Napoleon complex who likes to paint (badly) and take refugee women to bed as part of his protection racket.
Costner's nameless drifter is a loner and survivor who finds a postal uniform on a dead body and figures, with the right story, it could get him food and shelter wherever he travels.
Anxious for any sign of establishment, the refugee towns embrace the Postman and he finds himself the reluctant center of a cult of personality. Wide-eyed followers like Ford Lincoln Mercury (Larenz Tate), a passionate, caffeinated patriot, clamor to become heroic mail carriers themselves. Women with impotent husbands like Abby (Olivia Williams) throw themselves at him, trying to get pregnant.
Before long his conscience gets the better of him and with a rising band of motivated mail carriers who think he represents a restored federal government, he takes up the cause of freedom against Bethlehem and his army.
For the guerrilla war that ensues, Costner taps much better films like "Braveheart" and his own "Dances with Wolves" for inspiration, but it doesn't carry him far. While somehow it feels shorter than three hours, the movie's length still gives the audience time to catalog its bevy of logistical problems and tired Hollywood conventions.
Every encampment the Postman encounters is, of course, pure of heart, peaceful and wholly incapable of defending itself.
Although he has no ethical issues about lying to these people and getting their hopes up in exchange for something to eat, he's reluctant to bed the anxious and willing Abby even though he probably hasn't had sex in years.
Conveniently, Abby's husband is killed by Bethlehem soon after the Postman knocks her up, and although they spend the whole next winter and spring together her belly doesn't begin to show until the end of the picture.
On a similar topic, the movie's whole sense of time is out of whack. The civil (or global?) war that destroyed America's infrastructure is implied to have taken place in 1998, yet only 15 years later no one but the Postman has heard of Shakespeare, whose plays he performs in sound bites to regale his various hosts.
And where do Bethlehem and the Postman keep getting their endless supply of ammo and horses?
At the core of "The Postman" is a provoking idea gone wrong. If a war did devastate America, the presumed restoration of the Postal Service probably would do a lot to inspire hope by re-establishing links with loved ones. And the film does convincingly capture the physical and psychological landscape of a defeated nation.
But that mood is hard to hold on to in this torrent of predictable plot devices, very cheesey dialogue ("You have a gift, Postman. You give out hope...") and extraneous scenes. Costner spends so much time idling in this picture (he must have had final cut) that when the finale mercifully appears on the horizon, we're happy to have recycled showdown-and-forgiveness material, just because we recognize it as the end.