It was at the time considered such a colossal bomb that effectively ended Kevin Costner as an A-list movie star. Twenty years ago, 1997’s big budget disaster The Postman, directed by and starring Coster, was widely panned by critics as an over-long and over-serious mess of a film. It was sold as a kind of Dances with Wolves meets Mad Max. But history condemns it as a 9% clunker on Rotten Tomatoes. As one perennially interested in speculative fiction, and perhaps a bit as a defiant devourer of cinema, I’ve seen The Postman twice. And I can say that yes, the film is a bit of a long muddle that turns from thrilling adventure to sappy maudlin nostalgia and vanity project for Costner. Roger Ebert called it “Dances with Myself.” But despite its flaws has an underlying structure that could have made for a great film. As time goes on, I’m beginning to realize a couple of things about Costner’s disaster epic. One, that it was perhaps an ill-timed film – perhaps made a decade too late or two decades too soon. And in the critical flaws of the film’s tone, particularly in the much dissed second half, could be much better interpreted in the real life dystopian Trumpian America of 2017.
The Postman (trailer) is based on a 1985 post-apocalyptic dystopian novel by David Brin. There are quite a few differences the movie makes from the book, but it’s what I’m adhering to here. Set in the future 2013, civilization has been destroyed as cities have been eradicated and EMPs and bioweapons have decimated the country. The extent of the damage is unclear to the survivors who have lost all contact. In the vacuum of government or legal authority, individual communities rise up. The hero, (Costner), unnamed in the film and called “The Postman” plays the lone wandering trickster man-with-no-name trope familiar to western films. He begins in the desert, likely to be Eastern Oregon, and while taking shelter, commanders a postal service jacket. Heading further west, he’s eventually captured and made a slave set to hard labor in a fascistic paramilitary camp called the Holnists, ruled by the cruel General Bethelhem. The Postman eventually escapes and runs into a kind, democratic society that has adapted well given the dire circumstances and is eager to connect with the larger world. The Postman uses the jacket as a costume and is a liar and a well-intentioned con-man. But as the lie grows, The Postman turns into a legend uniting the West. The locals see in the Postman a savior, a hero who wears the colors of the old Republic, and who bears them all the letters that were meant for them. (The 1980s and 1990s didn’t – it seems – predict the Twitterverse of social media – that no one would write physical letters by 2013.) The Postman’s myth in effect rebuilds the country as an Oregonian pony express give hopes to the region to defeat the fascists and rebuild a democratic United States.
I agree with many critics who think the film’s first half is really good stuff –danger, suspense, intrigue, a western hero, a noble lie – but its emotional momentum wanes after the mid-point. It’s the point where the Postman’s legend grows into this reassembled symbolic patriotism. Stephan Holden of the New York Times called it “bogus sentimentality” and “mawkish jingoism.” It’s not a mistake in the film, but a deliberate choice in line with the book. There is something that at the time felt so sappy, or even silly, about people living in small local communities in a very minimal, salt of the earth way, to suddenly, after years of time, suddenly swooning for the reorganization of the American civilization. People begin saluting the Postman in this very self-serious way, eager for the yoke of statism. Rousseau once wrote “man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains.” (Origins of Inequality). Yet without chains, the thing the postapocalyptic people want is … mail.
This is something Brin was conscious of. He wrote that he thought that in the cultural moment of the 1990s, patriotism was considered sappy and this robbed the film of any success. People didn’t find this emotionally credible at the time. And given that it contrasts with the haunting despair of other dystopian visions (Maze Runner, Divergent, The Walking Dead, Mad Max, Blade Runner, The Road, and so forth), this adoration and respect for the romantic and optimistic national myth is highly out of step with audience’s expectations.
But it’s this against-the-grain story that Brin set to write out. Brin wrote that he set out to write an answer to a problem he felt with dystopian fiction. 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. 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. It is a story about the last idealist in a fallen America. A man who cannot let go of a dream we all once shared. Who sparks restored faith that we can recover, and perhaps even become better than we were.”
Brin’s attempt here is to pull from some traditional motifs in Americana through his hero. The postman is a kind of mercurial character, a benign trickster with no name. Even his protégé has the mercurial name: Ford Lincoln Mercury. Like most American myths around their cultural founders on the American Frontier, it’s based on the performance of a lie. But it turns out to be a kind a beneficent lie. Or a noble lie, the kind of lies Plato’s philosopher kings tell the masses because the mundane truth would crush their spirits.
The archetypal trickster is at work through the whole narrative. The postman is basically a con, a liar who gets in way over his head because others have projected their nostalgic statism. This points to how nationalism itself relies on a foundational mythmaking. All states have founders, their revolutionary figures, and always their real lives obscured by the myths that circle them. The Postman though departs from the more ruthless origin stories of America when it’s reconstructed. The reconstructed America that is not a complete regurgitation of the historical American foundational myth that has more to do with a Slotkinesque “how the west was won” regeneration through violence. There is no Puritanical city on a hill motif or manifest destiny. What there is, however, is the civic nationalism symbolized by depoliticized American iconography of the postal service. It becomes the foundational icon of the new America, the Postman himself becoming a monument.
The post office itself one of the oldest of bureaucratic systems. Max Weber wrote of the postal service as the highest expression of a rational institution. David Graeber writes that the post office “was, essentially, one of the first attempts to apply top-down, military forms of organization to the public good. Historically, postal services first emerged from the organization of armies and empires.” (Utopia of Rules, 154). The post office remains a vestige of a public institution, and serves as the vehicle for the nostalgia of modern statism in The Postman. (Which is sort of what it’s like visiting the post office today – a Utopian relic of the public state). It also presents a positive organizational function absent either partisanism or authoritarianism – which is externalized and represented in the fascistic rival society led by General Bethlehem, who himself may represent what remains of America’s cross and flag crypto fascism.
Brin intimated on his website that the Postman may yet find its audience. If its message was heard as tone-deaf in the in cynical 1990s, perhaps the Postman can yet find a more captive audience. Brin noted that post 9/11, sentimental patriotism has resurfaced, but in an unfortunately politicized way.
It’s hard to overcome this notion in the regressed Trumpian America. In a nation now in flirtation with autocracy and oligarchic rule and ruination, we can read this film differently. Trump’s cartoonish authoritarian rhetoric finds a fictional ally in General Bethlehem and his basket of deplorables – the militiamen of the American west.
The Postman could be read in this way – a story of re-imagining the founding myth of America. Instead one of a frontier blazing conquest and triumphantly forging a nation out of genocide and slavery, we have a new myth, which is only uncovered after the death and massive defeat of the old republic, presented as a new cosmopolitan and democratic civic nationalism. What remains is a new frontier in which the trickster hero helps the good people overcome the vestiges of a cruel authoritarian order, which as a spaghetti western flair (think Sergio Carbucci’s Django in post-fascist Italy) It’s only after the hypothetical destruction of the nation that a whole new national myth finds its constitutive elements. The Postman is an attempt at this reconstruction. As Brin says, “to be better than we were.”
We are in a historical moment when words like “nationalism” and “nativism” have become resurfaced, conflating that national image with the most repugnant features of national consciousness. Perhaps only in our imaginations can we conjure what it would be like to have a positive nationalism comprised of multicultural classless democratic ideals championing inclusion. Perhaps the Postman shows us a glimpse of a historical reset button, one that can only be uncovered when the old national gods have met their final twilight.