The Death of the Post Office? There’s a Movie About That.

Karen Allen, third from left, stars in 'Colewell,' about the ripple effects of the closure of a rural post office.  (Gravitas Ventures)

By now, you’ve read all about the sanctioned murder of the post office.

You know all about the debilitating requirement approved by a Republican-led Congress in 2006 that the post office pre-fund its benefits 75 years into the future. You’ve studied up on Louis DeJoy, Donald Trump’s recently appointed Postmaster General, who’s slashed overtime pay and removed sorting machines, weakening the post office’s ability to deliver mail on the cusp of an election that, due to a global pandemic, is projected to see a record number of mail-in ballots.

In May, you heard Trump say that nationwide voting by mail would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” And on Thursday, you heard him publicly admit that he won’t provide additional funding to the post office because it would increase the ability to process mail-in ballots.

It’s a national emergency, no doubt. It’s a personal crisis, as well, for the millions of people who rely on the post office for prescriptions, paychecks, bills and consumer goods.

Colewell, released last year, is a film about none of those things. What it is about is the hole that’s left when a post office closes in a small rural community. For hundreds of towns across America, these tiny, one-room post office branches serve as community hubs, gathering places, and salves against loneliness.

It’s been this way since the first post office was opened in 1775. It’s an essential part of small-town life that’s dying quickly, as this administration closes more and more post offices nationwide. No other film has captured the loss of it quite as well.

Karen Allen stars in 'Colewell' as Nora, a postmaster who faces solitude and her own past.
Karen Allen stars in ‘Colewell’ as Nora, a postmaster who faces solitude and her own past. (Gravitas Ventures)

“In my own life, where I live in the country, going to the post office is how I connect with the people in the little town I live in,” Karen Allen, the star of Colewell, told me in a visit to KQED upon the film’s 2019 premiere in San Francisco. “It’s where I see people that otherwise I probably wouldn’t see, because we’re sort of spread out in the countryside, and there’s that kind of wonderful conversation that happens.”

Allen, best known to moviegoers as Indiana Jones’ fierce, action-chasing ex-girlfriend Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark, might seem like an unusual choice to play the film’s lead, Nora. The sixtysomething Nora doesn’t drink anyone under the table, or pull knives on attacking Nazis. Instead, she sips her morning coffee, pulls the rubber band off the morning paper, raises chickens and lives a quiet life of solitude.

That is, until the time comes each morning to open the tiny post office that abuts her house. There, people bring their knitting, their dogs, and their endless stories to Nora, and to each other, daily, among the wood-paneled walls and old combination-dial P.O. boxes.

Sponsored

Allen said the tableau was instantly familiar. “I have a house in a small town in western Massachusetts that has a post office not dissimilar to this post office,” she told me. “A lot of small-town post offices are linked to little stores, or little houses, and the communities are very interwoven with them.”

Colewell is slow-moving, which befits its rural setting, but it’s carried beautifully by Allen’s emotionally touching portrayal. (The Los Angeles Times called it “the performance of a lifetime.”) Fifteen minutes into the short, 79-minute film, Nora gets a notice that her branch is slated to be closed, setting in motion a series of severance packages, transfer offers, and personal reflection.

It’s then we start to clearly see the pride of purpose in Nora’s countenance when she dons her blue USPS cardigan in the morning, and the plain fact that Nora needs the customers of the post office just as much as they need her.

The impending closure also sets up a classic you-can’t-fight-city-hall battle between the residents of Colewell and the district manager in charge of closing its post office. At a town hall meeting, speakers bring up President Nixon making the postal service semi-privatized in the 1970s, and the agency’s challenges in turning a profit in the years since the 2006 bill hobbled its ability to diversify services.

It sounds a lot like the national discourse about the post office today. Except now, instead of arguing to keep a rural branch open, people are fighting to keep a president and Republican-controlled Senate from openly destroying the postal service in order to rig an election.

Karen Allen stars in 'Colewell' as Nora.
Karen Allen stars in ‘Colewell’ as Nora. (Gravitas Ventures)

The thing about killing the post office, though, is that it kills civic life, too. Not only does Nora lose her sense of identity in Colewell, the town itself loses its identity. It’s happened in real life, across the country, over and over—particularly after the current administration moved into the White House, where, just blocks away, Washington, D.C.’s former crown jewel of a post office is now a Trump Hotel.

“There are people who are sitting in government offices, just making a decision that this town now has no value to the post office or to the federal government,” Allen lamented. “And they literally take away its zip code, take away its post office, and erase it off the map. So the town doesn’t exist anymore.”

According to the agency’s annual reports, throughout 2014, 2015 and 2016, the USPS permanently shuttered no post offices at all. In 2017, after the election of Donald Trump, the USPS suddenly closed 304 post offices in one year.

“And these are towns that are 200 years old and generations and generations of families have lived there,” said Allen. “You have a lot of elderly people left in these towns who depend on the post office as a way to come together, and for there to be a little center in their world.”

It’s not as immediately urgent as the upcoming election. But Colewell—and especially its final scene—is a reminder that while saving the post office in 2020 means saving our democracy, in the long run, it also means saving the way the mail simply brings people together.

‘Colewell’ is available to watch on major streaming services now.

Sponsored