Where The Postman succeeds, besides with the performances, most of its technical aspects, is with director Costner’s ability to find each character’s emotional reality in a scene. He achieves a sort of alchemist’s miracle, but not with lead into gold, but with saccharine into sublime. With one unfortunate exception, every emotional moment in the film hits thanks to Costner’s direction of the actors. And Stephen F. Windon’s gorgeous cinematography, of course.
The Postman’s post-apocalyptic future never gets a thorough explanation. From the tidbits, it sounds a lot like white supremacists come to power and ruin the United States and possibly the whole world. The latter part is somewhat unclear. What also doesn’t get an explanation is the film’s basic thesis–the importance of communication between people. It’s in the film instead; the emotional impact of that communication is what Costner showcases. There’s also quite a bit–usually involving Costner’s sidekick Larenz Tate–about the young versus the old. It’s a wrecked, hopeless world, one where Costner’s protagonist–of course he stars in it as well–really doesn’t care about the world. It’s all very sincerely inspiring, especially since there’s such a fantastic contrast between Tate and his two mentors, Costner and Daniel von Bargen.
So there’s the whole communication thing, there’s the whole young vs. old thing, there’s also the whole army of white supremacists (led by a phenomenal Will Patton) and then there’s also the very, very complicated romance. Costner’s love interest, Olivia Williams, plays a major role in the second act and then gets shoved aside in the third. Worse, her character is the one the script fails completely. After building an incredibly complex character, the solution to her character arc is the film draining her character of any content. She’s still good, but it’s extremely unfortunate.
Also unfortunate, in general, is the third act. It’s where special effects come in, it’s where there’s too much summary, it’s where the pragmatic voiceovers come in (Peter Boyle’s editing is strong, but he can’t make third act montages work, which is partially composer James Newton Howard’s fault too). The movie’s about Costner’s character and his reluctant self-discovery, but it’s about a lot more too. Some of the third act acknowledges the rest and, sadly, the finale doesn’t.
Tate’s great, Williams’s great when her role’s well-written and fine when it’s not, James Russo’s great as one of Patton’s officers, von Bargen’s great, Giovanni Ribsi’s really good in a small part. And Costner’s really good. Even though he’s The Postman, he doesn’t hog the spotlight. Given the finale, maybe he should have. But he can tell he’s got a lot of excellent actors hitting all the right marks and he gives them their time.
The Postman’s not a great film. It’s a rather good one with countless great moments. With a better third act, a better score (maybe even still from Howard, but just better), it might have been. Great production design from Ida Random too. It’s an impressive attempt from Costner.
Directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by David Brin; director of photography, Stephen F. Windon; edited by Peter Boyle; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Ida Random; produced by Costner, Steve Tisch and Jim Wilson; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Kevin Costner (The Postman), Will Patton (General Bethlehem), Larenz Tate (Ford Lincoln Mercury), Olivia Williams (Abby), James Russo (Idaho), Daniel von Bargen (Sheriff Briscoe), Scott Bairstow (Luke), Giovanni Ribisi (Bandit 20), Roberta Maxwell (Irene March), Joe Santos (Colonel Getty), Peggy Lipton (Ellen March), Ron McLarty (Old George), Rex Linn (Mercer), Todd Allen (Gibbs), Brian Anthony Wilson (Woody), Shawn Hatosy (Billy), Charles Esten (Michael), Ryan Hurst (Eddie March) and Tom Petty (The Once Famous Man).