Field of Dreams (1989)
Logline: An Iowa corn farmer hears voices, compelling him to build a baseball field in the middle of his crop, within which Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox appear. As the lobby poster copy put it, “All his life, Ray Kinsella was searching for his dreams. Then one day, his dreams came looking for him.”
Starring: Kevin Costner as said corn farmer Ray Kinsella. It was the 34-year-old Costner’s second straight baseball movie (after 1988’s Bull Durham). One of the top movie stars on the planet at the time, Costner was riding the wave from The Untouchables, which was released two years earlier—today it seems incredible that he built his career with baseball movies. He’s joined by Amy Madigan as his quirky, eccentric, and supportive wife; Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson; Timothy Busfield as Ray’s brother-in-law and the only thing even close to resembling an antagonist, James Earl Jones as J.D. Salinger surrogate Terence Mann; both Burt Lancaster (old) and Frank Whaley (young) as real-life one-game-as-a-defensive-replacement-and-done journeyman Archie “Moonlight” Graham; “The Voice” is credited as “Himself.”
Director: Phil Alden Robinson, who also wrote the screenplay, in just his second feature following 1987 commercial failure In the Mood. Robinson also directed 1992’s Sneakers and then was mostly not heard from until 2002 blockbuster The Sum of all Fears. He later directed one episode of The Good Wife and later became the showrunner of The Good Wife spinoff, The Good Fight. Special honors for conceiving the Dolly Parton-Sylvester Stallone country music abomination, Rhinestone.
How Realistic is the Depiction of Baseball? The few shots we see of in-game action are inoffensive enough. The two blunders—if you want to call them that—are that Ray Liotta’s Shoeless Joe Jackson bats right-handed and throws left-handed, which is the exact opposite of the real Shoeless Joe. Also, Liotta’s Jackson is nothing more than vintage Liotta, thick New York accent and all, when in reality Jackson was from South Carolina and had a heavy southern drawl.
Real-Life Baseball Cameos: None, except for late-1980s era Fenway Park.
Typical Baseball Movie Cliche: “Field of Dreams including the line ‘Do you want to have a catch?’ instead of ‘Do you want to play catch?’ makes it bad.” The greatest thread in history, locked by the moderator after 11,247 pages of heated debate. “Build it and he will come,” the film’s most quoted line, has become a cliche, but that’s a mark of the film’s lasting influence.
Review: The greatest compliment you can pay Field of Dreams is that it elicits emotion. Roger Ebert put it best in his four-star review:
As “Field of Dreams” developed this fantasy, I found myself being willingly drawn into it. Movies are often so timid these days, so afraid to take flights of the imagination, that there is something grand and brave about a movie where a voice tells a farmer to build a baseball diamond so that Shoeless Joe Jackson can materialize out of the cornfield and hit a few fly balls. This is the kind of movie Frank Capra might have directed, and James Stewart might have starred in–a movie about dreams.
This is why it’s difficult to accept criticism of this film that’s centered around its nonsensicality. Because rest-assured, Field of Dreams is nonsensical. Try explaining the plot of the movie to someone. Hang on, let’s try:
An Iowa corn farmer hears a voice whose vague statements he interprets as instructions to build a baseball stadium in his crop, though that might bankrupt his farm. He does. Then, the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson shows up and shortly after, the rest of the 1919 White Sox. The voice then issues another non-specific command which, he thinks, tells him to find a reclusive writer and take him to a baseball game, so he does. While there the voice seemingly tells him to find an old baseball player who appeared in one game. The writer goes with him to Minnesota for some reason and they find out the old baseball player became a doctor but died several years earlier. The farmer then runs into the dead doctor on the streets of Minnesota after time traveling or having a vision or something, and, while driving back to Iowa (still with the now no-longer-very-reclusive writer) they encounter the young version of that old baseball player-turned-doctor and take him back with them. The young/old baseball player gets in a game with the rest of the ghosts who are all playing, but when the farmer’s daughter chokes on a hot dog, the young/old baseball player leaves the field and transforms back into an old doctor, who saves her life. For some reason, this costs him his dead-baseball eligibility. Oh and also, the farmer’s brother-in-law is telling him to sell the farm because he’s going bankrupt thanks to the baseball field, but his daughter and the writer tell him people will come and watch the ghost players because they lack peace. Then the writer goes into the cornfield with the rest of the ghosts and it turns out he’s a ghost, too, even though there was an article in the paper that said he was missing a few scenes earlier. Or maybe he just got a tourist visa to the afterlife. He disappears like the rest of the ghosts when he walks in the field, so it’s unclear. Finally, it turns out the farmer’s dad who had died while they were on bad terms was there all along with all the other ghosts and the farmer and his dad have a catch while people start to arrive at the farm to pay to watch the ghosts play, which will save the farm. The end.
If you look at the film strictly from that point of view, I don’t begrudge you for considering it a mess. But Field of Dreams is smartly not trying to appeal to your sense of reality, but to your emotions by focusing on the relationship between a husband and wife, a father and son or daughter, and the love of a game and the bonds it creates. In this, Field is unlike most other baseball movies, which tend to build to a big game. The game here is of wounded humans trying to be healed through the game itself. Wins and losses are beside the point. And if the tale W.P. Kinsella tells and Robinson translates to the screen is fantastical, it succeeds in capturing the real, tender emotions that love thwarted by failures of communication can evoke. “Ease his pain,” the voice says, and whatever it means in the context of the film, we all can understand the agony that results when we love someone and know they love us, but nevertheless we cannot find the words that would let us live together. Not only does Field understand that pain, but it shows that the game can be a vehicle for our reconciliation. In real life, we know that relationships are more complicated than this, but as the film ends we believe in the healing power of baseball, and that’s no small feat.
Don’t get me wrong, there are faults in Field of Dreams, most notably when Mann, the black progressive writer, waxes poetic about the healing nature of the sport while surrounded by pre-integration players. Surely a man of Mann’s intellect would take issue with the fact that several other players were kept off the diamond not because they cheated, but because of the color of their skin. Where are they? Who is easing their pain? His speech—the movie’s crescendo—is easy to buy into in the moment, but is a misstep that essentially glosses over the most disgusting part of the sport’s history.
Field of Dreams is perhaps the most contentious baseball movie ever made. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has seen the movie who doesn’t feel strongly about it, positively or negatively. It has no room for the cynical and the unsentimental alike. It’s a sappy tear-jerker about life, death, relationships, and baseball. And it works. To paraphrase the tagline from Superman: The Movie, watch Field of Dreams and you’ll believe a grown man can cry.
This Movie’s WAR: 3.7. Field of Dreams is the player that some swear is an All-Star and should be considered among the top players in baseball, while others continuously pick out their flaws and call them overrated. Not coincidentally, Bryce Harper finished the 2019 season with a 3.7 WARP.
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