BACK IN THE DAY: “FIELD OF DREAMS” (APR.’89)

It’s been said that every story needs an audience to accept at least one coincidence, one stretch of the imagination.  Field of Dreams asks for about five.  There is pretty much no level at which the story should have worked.  It should have been laughed at as sentimental tripe, but there’s been a lot of “tripe” nominated for Best Picture, and this is one of them.

Ray Kinsella (Costner) is a rookie farmer who convinces his annoying wife, both 60’s castoffs, to flatten 25% of their crop to make a baseball field on which “Shoeless” Joe Jackson will appear in order to redeem himself for being chased out of baseball some 70 years prior.  Why?  Because voices said only the words, “If you build it, he will come.”  And that’s only the first 12 minutes.

Then, after the field is built, a year goes by before finally someone is seen out in the field.  I know a lot about baseball, but I would need more than just those old baggy pants to convince me I was seeing Shoeless Joe (Ray Liotta) standing in the grass.  Yet Ray knows it’s him.  After a few days, Joe brings a whole team out to the field to relive their youth with bats and balls.  All seems well until the voice tells Ray “Ease his pain.”

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More confusion for Ray – until he attends a school board meeting at which, during a debate about banned books, he realizes he’s supposed to kidnap a famous, reclusive writer from the 60’s and drag him to a game at Fenway Park.  Naturally, he packs up the VW van, drives from Iowa to Boston, and knocks on the door of Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones).  Although Mann slams the door in Ray’s face, it doesn’t take long before the former activist, secluded for 17 years, is holding a hot dog and a beer while the Sox play the A’s.  Why?  To see a name of possibly the most insignificant player in the history of the game flash on the scoreboard for a few seconds.

What’s it mean?  It means both Ray and Mann must now drive to Minnesota to find “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster), whose career spanned one-half inning a few dozen years prior before he became a doctor.  One problem – Graham died many years ago.  Still, somehow Ray finds him walking along a street at about midnight.  And what does that all mean?  It means Ray and Mann must drive back to Iowa, to the field, because, well, aw shucks, doesn’t seem like anyone knows a damn thing in this film unless they seem to make it up as they go along.

And what of the climax of the story?  What was the soul/sole purpose of this baseball field?  So Ray’s father could also reappear, and he and his pop can “have a catch.”  For those who don’t know, it simply means to throw a ball back and forth.  And that’s it.  Nothing more.  All this was done so a dead guy and his son can throw a ball.  It’s not as if they hated each other and needed to figure it out.  It’s not as if they never knew each other and needed to have that closure.  The father died younger than most, but there was nothing outstandingly more tragic than any other man’s death.  We wait a long time for what seems like nothing.

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Earlier I wrote that most good films need you to accept one coincidence.  I think we’re up to about five so far with Field of Dreams, but there’s always room for more.  So how did a film that should have collapsed, just as Costner feared, get nominated for Best Picture?  Because American audiences love sappy, sentimental crap.  Additionally, the film had a large built-in audience.  Superheroes, time travel, Disney, and a few other genres have certain built-in audiences that all but guarantee a decent box office showing.  Field of Dreams included several different groups:  time travel, baseball, and dads approaching middle age who never had a chance to reconcile something with their own fathers.  Sappy + sappier + sappiest = cha-ching!

As much as I’m calling it stupid, why was I drawn to watch it again?  We all have films we loved in the past, but then when we watch them again years later, we wonder “What the hell was I thinking?”  I thought this was going to be one of those films, but it wasn’t.  Even though I could see stupid things happening, I still felt nothing but good while watching it.  Even though I am not even close to being a fan of Costner, I still enjoyed his “golly gee whiz” semi-innocence as he did his best to do what he felt was right.  Even though the mean ol’ banker man showed him some undeniably bad numbers, I was still happy that corn-for-brains Ray followed the voices and figured out how to get it done, even though he didn’t really get anything done.

When Kevin Costner was asked, two dozen years later, what he thought when he first read the script for Field of Dreams, he said it looked like a “house of cards that would collapse unless exactly the right actors gave exactly the right performances.”  It was rather brave of him to sign on first without knowing if the others would be exactly the right actors even capable of exactly the right performances.  It takes a big dose of faith and balls (pun intended) to make a movie like that.  Just as Costner hoped, all the right actors gave all the right performances, and it works.

When you break the film down into separate elements, there is no reason for me to like it – but I do.  Field of Dreams is the bee that, according to the laws of physics, should not get off the ground.  Yet it still manages to fly, and you’d be a liar if you said you didn’t fly with it.

Overall: 9.5/10

The Good:  How it leaves you feeling
The Bad:  How it should leave you feeling
The Ugly:  I got nothing

Written By Rich

Rich is a retired English teacher and author of two published books: When the Mirror Breaks, a collection of short stories, and Connecting Flight, a novel about two lost ghosts. His film education has been mainly due to watching Siskel & Ebert through high school and college, and he is a regular attendee at Ebertfest, Roger Ebert’s annual film festival in Illinois every April. With all this free time on his hands, you’d think he would see more films, but red wine seems to keep getting in the way.


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