The Postman: A Review
I have a soft spot for bad movies. I’ll be the first to admit they aren’t particularly enriching for the soul, but like junk food I enjoy them in moderation. That was the mentality I had when I sat down to view The Postman. A critical and commercial flop, the film was apparently a very classic Kevin Costner film and I expected to get a few chuckles at the awfulness of it and nothing else. However, as I watched it I was quite surprised to discover there was actually a bit more to it than I was initially expecting; to my great shock, the movie managed to deliver a surprisingly powerful message on the importance of identity and nation, and the consequences that await when both are lost.
Before I go any further, I would like to make the following clear. The Postman is not a good movie. The acting is subpar. The story is not especially creative. The characters are stereotypes. Above all, the film has not aged well and has a highly retro feel to it. I do not defend or ignore any of these criticisms. On a purely artistic level there is very little to be praised here. However, as the film progressed I found myself enjoying it (and not just in the hatewatching sense that I had expected). Eventually, I realized that for all its flaws, The Postman still managed to tell a very potent story, one with very real meaning to the world we live in today.
The world of The Postman is the typical post-apocalyptic wasteland of films too numerous to count. Society has collapsed. Order has broken down. The exact reason is never really shown, but there is mention of wars and diseases. Small settlements struggle to eke out a living while marauding militia bands pray on them parasitically for supplies and recruits. It is in this setting that we encounter a wandering unnamed survivor, played by the aforementioned Kevin Costner, who roams from settlement to settlement surviving on scavenging ruins and performances Shakespeare for entertainment of his fellow survivors (yes, as I said, the story is not especially creative). At one point in the film, our roaming hero comes across an abandoned mail truck, and dresses himself in a dead postman’s uniform to keep warm. At the next settlement he encounters, Costner’s character conns himself into being given shelter and food by claiming to be a representative of the newly restored United States government out East sent to re-establish communication routes, aka their new postman (a feat he pulls off due to the luck of having a letter to one of the community’s aging survivors among the pilfered possessions of the corpse he had looted).
So where is the significance here? I myself hadn’t realized it yet, but the movie’s principle villain, one General Bethlehem of a militia-gang called the Holnists, does. When word of the new postman reaches him, he rides to the settlement and angrily finds a refurbished post office with an old American flag flying before it. “The United States doesn’t exist anymore!” he declares before torching both the offending flag and the office. Bethlehem realizes the mortal danger posed by what has happened here. Our roaming “postman” might be just one man, but he represents an idea – the old United States of America. The power of Bethlehem and his ilk comes from the fact that to the survivors of this wasteland the USA is dead and it is from that void that gangs like the Holnists are able to thrive.
Indeed, The Postman gives us some surprisingly good insight into exactly how it is that gangs of thugs like the Holnists are able to operate. For all their brutality, Bethlehem’s army still has a code and a sense of identity to it. They aren’t just a gang of marauders smashing things because they can, there is an actual sense among them that they are a part of something greater (and certainly superior to the pathetic bands of survivors they prey upon). One of their conscripts soon becomes an enthusiastic oppressor of the very people he was once a part of because the Holnists let him be a part of something for the first time in his life. Bereft of all else, people will cling to anything that gives them a sense of purpose in life beyond the endless and never-ending task to put food in one’s belly and keep a roof over one’s head however vile or repressive it might be. We see this from the appeal street gangs in depressed inner cities among the hopeless youth of those communities to the foreign fighters of ISIS who flock to join them out of apathy at the emptiness of modernity. Nature abhors a vacuum and when one exists for long enough people will find something to fill it with.
A nation is ultimately more than just a government bureaucracy. It is ultimately an idea. Costner’s postman manages to remind the survivors of that idea, both those old enough to remember what existed before and those so young that the United States was only stories from another time. The drifting main character might have only used an illusion for his own selfish purposes, but that illusion inspires others to take up the duties of postmen for real all across the Pacific Northwest and as far south as California, and eventually brings together the surviving communities under the banner of a real Restored United States of America to fight back against the aggression of the Holnist militia (the very thing Bethlehem feared). In the end the illusion ultimately becomes real.
Sadly, this is something we seem to have forgotten here in the modern world. Oh the courts and police and postmen of our nations still function, the coercive kratos, but the demos, the ideas and identity of the nation, have been lost or forgotten or (worst of all) deliberately been expunged from the public consciousness. It is that last part that irks the most. Progressives, in their self-loathing haughtiness, have done their best to erase everything that once made us a nation in some Herculean quest of atonement for the perceived sins of the West; an atonement it appears that will only be complete when the Western world itself has ceased to exist in all but name.
If you want to know the root of the problems that beset us there you have it. No wonder we are losing this long war we have been engaged in for the last decade and half. We no longer even know what we are fighting for. Vladimir Putin may be a bully and a brute, but he knows what he is fighting for. The Islamic State is a collection of sociopathic barbarians, but they know what they are fighting for. The Chinese are despotic totalitarians but even they have something to fight for. We are not engaged in a clash of civilizations, for you need two civilizations for there to be a clash. Instead we are like a social worker in a palliative care ward, seeking to make the inevitable end as comfortable as possible as all the while progressives and liberal intellectuals busily engage themselves in piling up the funeral pyre (to borrow the words of an English poet and classicist who once tried to warn us).
Human beings are not purely rational atoms operating independently based on logical deduction and pure self-interest, despite what both libertarians and socialists alike would have you believe. We are creatures of the pack. We seek a community, and for that we need an identity; a mythos that tells us who we are and where we came from. Without one, things can go on for some time, especially when those times are good and there is plenty of candy to distract ones’ self with, but even then a gnawing dissatisfaction can be found bubbling beneath the surface (especially for those whom a life of hedonistic gratification holds little appeal). Thus we see trickle of lost souls who try and find meaning elsewhere, either in the arms of Islamic radicals or the self-righteous Social Justice Warriors or self-aggrandizing populist demagogues of the right and the left. Heaven help us if the candy ever runs out; on that day the trickle becomes a flood with the snap of a finger. Tell people long enough that their society has no value, and you should not be surprised to discover those people do not value it enough to see it as worth saving.
This need for an identity, a founding set or ideas or a “noble lie” as Leo Strauss would put it, is at the heart of the story told in The Postman. And just as the survivors of America needed to remember who they were in order to make the Restored United States a reality and no longer an illusion, so too do we need to remember who we are in the here and the now. Until we do, the funeral pyre will only grow higher and higher, and riper for the inevitable spark that will set it all ablaze.