“You have a gift, Postman. I saw it back in Pineview. You’ve given us all back what we’d forgotten. You made Mrs. March feel like she could see again. You made Ford feel like he was part of the world. You give out Hope like it was candy in your pocket.”
I know what you’re thinking, The Postman? Really? And I know why you’re feeling that way. It was the first movie Costner did after Waterworld and just about the time you might have forgiven he came out with Message in a Bottle so the hell if you were going to go back and give anything else a shot. I understand completely. And that was the feeling I had when I first watched it but I had nothing better to do and was with family so I couldn’t very well just tell my family to go to hell I wasn’t about to watch what I was sure would be a piece of crap.
And then you ask, ‘if it’s so good why hasn’t it garnered any acclaim since it first came out?” And the answer is: because it is so patriotic, and you know how the intelligentsia loathes that.
So, while I would recommend you see the movie before I reveal the plot, for any valid discussion I have to go over the plot a little.
The movie follows The Postman, played by Kevin Costner. Yes the character is never actually given a name. This is intentional. A drifter in a post-apocalyptic future (actually its 2013…damn Obamacare is going to ruin everything faster than I thought…I’m sure it sounded semi-reasonable in in1997). The first part of the film introduces us to this world where an army of thuggish marauders, called the Holnists, terrorize and control much of the Pacific Northwest. The Postman is at first captured and impressed into their fascist army, but escapes…and in his escape he finds a crashed US Post Office truck, fully loaded with a bag of mail and the skeleton of a dead postal official (still wearing his uniform). He takes the uniform and mail bag and concocts a story that the US government has been restored back East and he is a federal employee of the Restored United States, hoping this story will get him something to eat from every town he passes. What he doesn’t realize is what news of a Restored United States does to a population that has had all hope ripped away from them. Within only months he soon has his own army of mostly young men and women following him, carrying the mail all over Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Hope returns, people start fighting back…and with his band of very disgruntled postal workers they defeat the Holnist army and turn The Postman’s lie of a restored government into a reality.
So what makes this post-apocalyptic film, a film that shows the United States reduced to rubble, that states the White House had been burned to the ground, a patriotic film?
First it clearly points out what America isn’t. About halfway through the leader of the Holnist army, the psychotic and utterly taken with himself General Bethlehem, gives a speech on what he thinks made America great:
“We had a great nation once. You know what made it great? I can. Till the weak came along, the ‘I Can’ts” destroyed us. But I’m going to make us strong again. I’m going to be the father of a new nation. And do you know why it will be me? Because I can.”
The point here is to show exactly why this wasn’t what made America great. Any bully or tyrant can say “Yes, I can” any mindless mob can say “Yes, we can” but might doesn’t make right. America is great not because of brute strength but because we stand for ideals instead of might, we stand for ethics instead of the club, because the American ideal is “I should” not “I can.” America is great because we look at the greatest obstacles and say “I will” and look to the future instead of the mere tyrant who says “I can” as their only justification. Only tyrants and bullies speak of “I can”…the moral is the best in America speak of “I should.” And this is shown in the film, The Postman is offered a lot of things he “can” do, but it is the fact that in the end he chooses what he “should” do that makes him the emblem of America that he is meant to be.
The next is the very nature of democracy is shown in this film. Power coming from the people is the natural state of governments and it is antithetical to tyranny. After capturing a postal carrier and reading through the mail, Bethlehem’s men dismisses it as “Births and deaths, the weather, gossip. There’s nothing here.” Bethlehem recognizes the threat of people banding together to agasinst his little feudal rule. “Nothing? Everything is here. Am, I the only one who sees that?” People banding together is the greatest threat to tyranny. Always has been, always will be (the next most dangerous is an armed populace). (Granted people banded together can just as easily fall from one tyranny to another, see the Russian Revolution or the Arab Spring, but it always spells a short reign for the current dictator). This is why tyrannies spend so much time and money to control all forms of information, when people begin to associate and talk without government control, not much can stand in the way of the storm that is to come from their banding together. George III found this out, and this is why one of the first things the Continental Congress did after declaring independence is establish a postal system. Communication is essential for liberty and it is antithetical to slavery.
This movie is also patriotic in what it shows the United States, just as a concept is. It is a beacon of hope. Just the words “Restored United States” encourages people to stand up and resist their oppressors, it makes them believe in the future which they had stopped doing. Some of the more cynical are even afraid of what this hope means,
“These people don’t need dreams, Mr. Postman. They need something real. They need help with the goddamn Holnists. Are you going to bring them that?”
But the film does a great job at showing that it is this hope and this ability to believe that the future is worth fighting for is exactly what will give them the help they need. And the movie itself culminates in a personal battle between Bethlehem and the Postman and in a moment of attempting to gloat over his impending victory Bethlehem taunts the Postman with:
General Bethlehem: I know your problem. Do you know why you won’t fight? Because you have nothing to fight for! You don’t care about anything! You don’t value anything! You don’t believe in anything! That’s what makes me better!
The Postman: I believe in the United States.
The Postman immediately proceeds to beat Bethlehem to a bloody pulp. It helps when you believe in something real and something worth fighting for.
And one of the more overlooked parts of the film is a final reason why it shows film to be exceedingly patriotic.
The film ends with a speech given in 2043 by The Postman’s daughter at the commemoration of a statue to him.
“My father saw how fragile we are, how quickly we fell into the hands of tyranny. He saw that ordinary men could reach deep within themselves and find courage. He saw that if we began to communicate as a nation we could become strong again, united, but he never did see St. Rose. He said there was too much to be done. He’d made a promise. And in keeping it he traded one dream for another. With no regrets.”
And it is not only a speech that shows what America is capable of. The scene is not a post-apocalyptic wasteland just recovering. It is a healthy civilization. Prefabricated boats in a marina, factory made clothes on all the people gathered, cameras, electricity, mass media, a society that can spare the time and money to commission a giant bronze statue. It shows an America that can rise from its own ashes in a mere 30 years and recover all of it past glory in only a generation. And this is an accurate depiction of America. Time and time again we have endured depressions, natural disasters, the hell of war, and whatever else the world can throw at us. And each time we come back, stronger, more resilient, and wiser. Name for me a nation that can not only do that once, but time and time again, other than America.