Story Enneagram of Costner movie “The Postman”

Originally posted to the internet July 29, 2010

Every Fourth of July I watch Kevin Costner’s The Postman because its themes of freedom and patriotism suit the holiday. I know, this movie is considered not great. I can love it despite recognizing its flaws. However, Postman has an excellent story for the Enneagram: Its strengths are supported by a clear throughline and its mistakes are easy to find where its Enneagram falls apart. So, even though you may not have seen this movie, or perhaps you have no desire to do so, I think you’ll enjoy a look at its highlights.

Sorry about the audio and visual irregularities in my clip grabs. Also, this film is rated R and some of the clips may reflect that.


In storytelling the One sets the mood at the opening. The characters live in the world as defined at this moment. Postman is a post-apocalypse style movie and Costner sets up the One cleanly and quickly.

The character’s isolation, yet ability to remember the world as it was, is established. He’s a loner and a little bit strange. Even in a world where all society’s rules are rewritten, the Postman character is still an odd bird. Humanity has built small communities yet the Postman doesn’t join; he only visits.


The Two in storytelling introduces the first sign of trouble, the ripple in the pond of the movie’s world. During the Postman’s visit (the first we see) to a community, General Bethlehem and his army, a totalitarian feudal system ruling the post-apocalyptic America, ride into town to conscript men. The Postman is taken.

This section of the movie can be hard to watch. The introduction of the army and Bethlehem, our bad guy, is important to the world and critical to the later storytelling, but the tone is brutal and depressing.

No one wants to watch a movie about our hero trapped in this camp. However, this is just the Two moment. Introduce the trouble and move on. And here we come to our first indication of a flaw with this movie. This Two goes on for a very long time. Waaaay too long. Many interesting character traits are presented, much lovely cinematography is shown, acting lessons by Will Patton as Bethlehem are given, etc., but the Two cannot carry this weight. The true arc of the story has not yet been revealed (our hero is called Shakespeare at this point, for his ability to quote The Bard, but he is known throughout most of the later movie as the Postman), and the viewer is misdirected by the complexity of these scenes. Heavy editing was needed during post-production.


Eventually, though, the Postman escapes from Bethlehem’s army. While wandering, cold and hungry, he finds a mail carrier truck with a skeleton in the driver’s seat. Settling inside, helping himself to the postal carrier’s flask, snacks and cigarette lighter, the Postman experiences our Three moment. The Three will always come from outside the character, sometimes like the hand of God. To find this truck full of mail and with an intact postal uniform is a miraculous stroke for our hero. A new life becomes possible for him.

“Possible” being the key word. The Three only suggests the course of the story; the arc is fulfilled during the rest of the movie. The Postman takes the uniform and leftover old mail and decides to pawn himself off as a government official in order to get free food and lodging at the communities he visits. Becoming a postman is a scam for him at first. He claims the “Continental Congress” has restored the American government back east, invents a president and even says “they got Broadway up and running again.”


These lies are the bulk of the Four. The Postman doesn’t believe he’s a postman, and some of the villagers don’t think he is either.

While the Three is only a moment, the Four will include a bulk of storytelling. The arc will be our character avoiding his destiny. He has a love interest with Abby that develops during this time. He has a run-in with Bethlehem, who doesn’t believe for a second that the government has re-formed, but doesn’t recognize him as Shakespeare. The Postman runs away from responsibility until he can’t run anymore. In terms of filmmaking, the Four can hold a lot of material; however, the editor could have been at work here, too. Cutting some of the time with Abby in the cabin, during which the Postman recovers from a gunshot wound, would emphasize the concise and moving previous scene when the Postman rescues her from Bethlehem. Pearls are getting lost in the mud of the swine pit.

4-5 Switch

When applying the Enneagram to storytelling, we talk about an additional step. The leap from Four to Five becomes an actual storytelling moment. Something has to happen, usually a realization by the protagonist, that firms up the character’s resolve. For the most part, the Switch happens at the film’s mid-point and is one of the easiest moments to get right. A writer of even modest talent recognizes the need for a character to grow and will find this key changing point. This moment for our Postman is very well done.

While the Postman was recuperating in the mountain cabin, Ford Lincoln Mercury, a wonderful character we met back in the Four, has been advancing a real postal service in the tradition of the Pony Express. Before this point, the Postman was playing at being a government official; after this point the Postman can no longer pretend.


A Five plays much like the Four except that characters work together now, where before they worked at cross purposes. The postal service exists and the Postman is a part of it, whether he likes it or not. He is no longer distant from human community but thoroughly engaged in trying to protect everyone around him. He rides the most dangerous routes; when Bethlehem begins assassinating carriers the Postman takes action to defend them. He has a connection with the people he’s met and feels pain and responsibility when they die. As in the Four, much storytelling can reside in the Five and this movie has some beautiful scenes during this section.


A successful Six is a direct mirror of the Three. Oftentimes both moments involve the same device, the same touch from the outside. A good Six will compel you forward into the film’s climax. In this movie the Three is the “knighting” of the postal carrier. The Postman becomes a postman. Therefore, the Six should mirror this moment. We’re looking for a “re-knighting,” a renewed purpose. Indeed, the movie has this moment clearly stated, but the dramatic tension at the Six as played is horribly flat. I would argue that the bungling of the Six here is the biggest flaw in the movie. Especially because the scene prior has dramatic tension in spades. The Postman has disbanded the carrier service in an attempt to appease Bethlehem. To all appearances, the post office is no more. Ford Lincoln Mercury has turned himself over to Bethlehem to make amends, which will most likely result in Ford’s death. If only Costner could have combined these moments and had our Postman experience the emotions of the following scene, the False Six, as I’ll call it. See what this does for you:

By the way, that’s Larenz Tate as Ford, and he’s superb.

We, the moviegoers, see that Bethlehem cannot be appeased and that the postal service must go on. The post office is such a symbol of American freedom that other independent places, such as the Republic of California, have begun the same system. This scene is a wonderful testament to human determination and sovereignty, yet our protagonist is off-screen and misses the whole thing. Eek. Bad storytelling. No, no, no.

The movie proceeds on to its true Six, the return of the postman, without any of the emotional thrill evident just moments before.

Perhaps you recognize Tom Petty, famous rock musician, playing a pre-apocalypse famous rock musician. The joke is handled deftly and I enjoyed it. You will also have noticed that Costner again gives the postal hat, the “knighting” symbol, a prominent placement as he did during the Three. The exactly right shot comes at the wrong time. I find this movie to be wonderful and frustrating because of moments like this. A mishandled Six will leave the viewer apprehensive about the climax. A sense of completion, of coming full circle, is needed. The character must be determined to face the end of the story, and we must believe he is worthy and ready. This Six leaves us wondering.


In Enneagram personality typing the Seven is one who likes options; in storytelling the Seven is about narrowing the options to a choice, a decision on how to move into the final battle. As I’ve mentioned before, sometimes the Seven is implied, which is fine. This moment can take a blink of an eye. Giving the Seven too much weight after a scintillating Six heading into a bang-up climatic Eight is a mistake. Let the Seven touch the story lightly and move on. Unfortunately, this movie needed more footage on the post-production floor. The following is an example of a painfully clunky Seven attempting to sum up what should have been concisely handled in a better-designed Six moment.

And it continues on (and on) from there. Let me Monday morning quarterback, as I do every year as I watch this scene. When Abby says, “You give out hope like it’s candy in your pocket,” the Postman should say, “You think I have hope in my pocket?” and pull out the ribbon, left behind by Abby after a romantic interlude way back at the beginning of the movie. He looks at the ribbon; she recognizes the ribbon; we see they love each other; end of scene. Now, come on. Was that so hard?


The climax, the big event, the end of the movie with all the bells and whistles. No filmmaker misses this moment. However, some are more successful than others. This movie’s Eight is whizz-bang wonderful. I will not show you the full Eight, though, out of respect for the integrity of the film. An Eight should be seen in context, with all the dramatic build the filmmaker has created. This is only a sample.

The culmination of every emotion you were subjected to with the General Bethlehem scenes is rewarded beautifully and I encourage you to watch it.


Same rule applies for showing a clip of the Nine. The story is resolved, peace has been restored, and our little film world is wrapping up. I don’t read the last page of a book before I get to it, and I won’t show an extended clip of the last scene of a movie. Just a sample.

And thus, after the month of July has practically come and gone, I give you my Fourth of July pick for a (mostly) excellent holiday movie, the Enneagram of the story of The Postman. Hope you enjoyed, and God bless America.

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