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Misdirected Mail

[whitespace] Costner's elephantine Postman fails to deliver

By Zack Stentz

IT'S POPULAR these days to blame the abysmal state of Hollywood storytelling on those evil corporate executives who supposedly spend their lives squashing the industry's creative minds. But seeing The Postman, the new film directed by and starring Kevin Costner, leads one to the opposite conclusion.

Here is a film whose maker was given too much leeway in pursuing his vision, a film that practically begs for outside intervention to remedy its flaws. While Costner didn't quite hang himself with the $80 million budget and final-cut approval given him by Warner Bros., he's sure to come away from the experience with a severe case of rope burn.

Unlike Waterworld, whose thematic heft can be summed up in the phrase "Road Warrior on Jet Skis," the source material is not to blame. The Postman is based on the novel of the same name by David Brin, which rates up there with Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz as one of the few certifiable classics of the well-populated postapocalyptic science-fiction genre.

Instead of pandering to sci-fi geek fantasies of running amok in a world without rules, The Postman posits a future America reduced to feudalism and desperate for a way to reconnect. Indeed, one of the film's best conceits is to characterize the main villain of this fallen world, General Bethlehem (Will Patton), as a former copy-machine salesman and amateur military historian, just the type of armchair Visigoth who probably devoured these tales of rape and pillage as a lonely teen.

Costner, meanwhile, plays postwar America's unlikely source of hope, a lone drifter in a scavenged mail carrier's uniform. For food and shelter, he masquerades as the Postman, a representative of a restored government who's ready to resume delivering Publisher's Clearinghouse sweepstakes announcements to the grateful populace. Silly? Sure, but the book and the film's great fun comes from watching the Postman's lie gradually become the truth as society actually begins knitting itself back together around this symbol and a new army of letter carriers springs up to join him.

Bethlehem's bad guys move in to strangle the nation's nascent rebirth, and the end result is a strange but not displeasing spectacle of Mad Max mayhem combined with a homily to civil society and Norman Rockwell values. For conservatives, The Postman provides abundant Old Glory idolatry, while liberals get to see racist, sexist, right-wing militia types as the designated Army of Bloodthirsty Sadists (tm) and civilization rebuilt by government employees (contrast this with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's conservative novel on the same theme, Lucifer's Hammer, in which the new society springs up around a nuclear power plant).

ALL THE ELEMENTS are here for an intelligent, crowd-pleasing tale of civilization triumphing over barbarism. That the finished film misfires so badly makes The Postman in some ways even more dispiriting than Waterworld, which never promised anything more than mindless spectacle.

So what should that regrettably absent Warner Bros. suit have told Costner? Cut the damn thing down, for one. There's not enough plot to sustain The Postman's elephantine 180 minutes, and the film has a serious pacing problem, especially in its first hour. An extended sequence in Bethlehem's abandoned copper mine of a headquarters drags on far too long and lacks the comparative wit and inventiveness of Tank Girl, which used the exact same mine as the base for its postapocalyptic villain.

Then there's Costner's maddening love for shooting the action scenes in portentous, symphonically scored slow motion. God forbid the audience should get swept along or excited by the action and movement, rather than bludgeoned over the head with its deeper significance. Directive two: stop letting that Best Director Academy Award for Dances With Wolves go to your head, and punch up the action.

Worst of all is the climax, in which the aforementioned Army of Bloodthirsty Sadists (tm) is cowed into submission by a ludicrous mano a mano fistfight. The only thing the denouement lacks is a small child singing "America the Beautiful," and that's because he already did that an hour or two earlier. Directive three: lose the ending.

Sadly, though, no one seems to have been around to tell the big-name star-director he had a seriously flawed movie on his hands. So while The Postman provides a welcome antidote to the world's would-be road warriors and contains more than a few stirring sequences, it's hard not to leave the theater disgruntled by Costner's postal worker.

The Postman (R; 180 min.), directed by Kevin Costner, written by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by David Brin, photographed by Stephen Windon and starring Costner, Will Patton and James Russo.

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From the December 24-31, 1997 issue of Metro.

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