Field of Dreams (1989)

Directed by Phil Alden Robinson


I imagine a lot of people feel a deep connection to Field of Dreams.  I certainly do.  I hadn’t seen the film in well over a decade, but so much of the imagery remained vivid in my head, like some dream (no pun intended) I was returning to from my childhood.

It’s that effect of seeing something again which had made such an impact on you growing up.  In a lot of cases, revisiting something like this will make you see right through the spell cast over you at an impressionable age, but except for maybe a single shot or two, the spell remained for me.

Both of my parents grew up in Iowa, my father not far from where the movie was filmed, and my dad and I have always shared a strong passion for baseball, one which hasn’t waned even as topics of conversation go from the abstract (‘this guy’s got a lot of power, speed,’ etc.) to almost mind-numbingly specific (‘last year his fWAR was 4.6, but you know that UZR is an inexact science, so expect it to fluctuate year to year’).

Field of Dreams is a poem.  It’s a beautiful story about dreams, destiny, the unifying force of America’s pastime, fathers and sons, and really just a story about those who are “with it” versus those who are not.

One evening, farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) hears a voice whisper, “If you build it, he will come.”  The story doesn’t waste much time letting Ray figure out what this means or convincing his wife Annie (Amy Kinsella) that he should build a two acre baseball field in the middle of his corn field, despite the obvious financial burden this will bring.

Before you know it, he’s constructed a nearly perfect field while neighboring farmers label him insane.  Once built, however, no one shows up on the field, at least long enough for Ray to consider tearing it down as they move closer to the red, financially speaking.  Annie’s brother, Mark (Timothy Busfield), is the leading voice of opposition.  He tells Ray and Annie that they’re crazy, and they just laugh at him, demonstrating either an intense insanity or enlightenment.

Soon a ballplayer shows up, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta).  He’s something between a ghost or the real reincarnation of the former player, and none of the characters, Joe included, can explain or care to explain this phenomenon.  All that matters is that Joe has a chance to play ball again, and now Ray has confirmation that he built this for a reason.

Soon more players show up, and all seems to be well.  This is a baseball mecca for the ghosts of Major League Baseball, but the field still doesn’t net them any money, and Ray and Annie learn that Mark, when he shows up again, can’t see the ballplayers.  To him, and everyone else, they are ghosts.

This serves to distance the Kinsella family from everyone around them, and this is further demonstrated in a PTA meeting in which Annie (she and Ray being liberals from the coasts) talk down the mob mentality of a group of conservative parents who want to ban books from the school reading lists.

This is that type of scene you don’t remember from your childhood.  It’s almost entirely disconnected from the plot and underscores the theme of the movie.  Annie and Ray are “with it.”  They are college-educated who met at Berkeley in the 60’s.  This period in time enlightened them, to some extent, and now they have returned to Iowa (for the first time in Ray’s case) to bring with them the knowledge they gained.  It might be a little reductive, turning everyone else in the auditorium into stereotypes, but it makes it tells us that Annie and Ray aren’t crazy and that the film won’t even approach that discussion.  They are enlightened, clued into something within the universe that no one else can or wants to see.

At this meeting, Ray is ruminating over the possible meaning of the latest whisper he’s heard: “Ease his pain.”  When the PTA conversation turns to novelist Terence Mann and his potentially subversive work, Ray realizes that Mann is who the voice is referring to.  It’s a leap in logic, like so many in the movie, and we just have to accept that Ray knows way more than we do.  When he says he can “feel” it, we believe him.

So Ray goes to Boston to meet or possibly kidnap Mann (James Earl Jones), an aging writer who has forsaken the 60s.  Once an idealist of some sort, Mann became disenchanted with the War, the assassinations of King and Bobby Kennedy and with the twice-elected “Tricky Dick.”  Mann is not the man he once was, but rather than try and convince him of anything he might not believe, Ray simply wants to take him to a ball game.

They go to Fenway Park, fulfilling a premise shown to Ray and Annie in a dream.  There Ray and Mann both hear the voice, “go the distance” as well as see a flash across the scoreboard calling their attention to an old ballplayer Archie “Moonlight” Graham.  They track Graham down to Minnesota only to learn that he has passed, but on the ride back to Iowa they pick up a young hitchhiker who just so happens to be Graham himself.

Back in Iowa, more players have now gathered, and Graham joins them.  The family and Mann, who can also see the players because he too is “with it,” enjoy the fun, but soon Mark is back to cause trouble in paradise.

Mark reiterates that Ray must sell the land or risk losing his house.  Ray continues to resist, while the ballplayers observe, and when his daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann) chokes on a hotdog, Graham (who became a doctor after his baseball career ended) leaves the field and thus ruins any chance he could return to the field.  He becomes an old man, takes care of the girl, then leaves, his spirit going wherever it may.  The ultimate effect of this moment is that now Mark can see the ballplayers, suddenly with it, and thus the antagonism is gone.

How do they cover the missing expenses with the field’s construction?  Easy, they just charge people to come and see.  Who would come to Iowa and pay to see this?  Well, everyone, according to Terence Mann.  “If you build it, they will come,” he says in a passionate monologue.

Field of Dreams isn’t interest in logic.  It’s something more akin to faith, but a sort of enlightened, educated faith, one you only get by doing the work and trying to figure out what life is all about.

Of course people will come and pay money, because they just will.  The movie ends with a long line of cars piling into the field (with nowhere near enough parking), telling us that it’s all going to be all right.

The final note of the film involves Ray playing catch with his dad, one of the ballplayers.  Ray has told us that he never knew his dad as a younger man and that his relationship with his dad was strained before his death.  In the final scene, Ray says simply, “hey dad, you wanna have a catch?”

I don’t know how you can’t get chills.

This is a movie that defies logic, isn’t afraid of being heavy-handed and sentimental, and revels in self-righteousness.  It’s the type of story you’re either with from the start, and thus the movie nails the landing, or you tuned out early on.

I love Field of Dreams, and I don’t think you need to love baseball to love it too.  It is a movie that would seem to polarize some of its audience, so I find its legacy somewhat mystifying, as if many didn’t mind or didn’t recognize the not so tremendous representation of midwestern folk.

Though the story is steeped in a certain midwestern work ethic, celebrating the people who live there, it really only follows the Kinsella family.  Though Annie was born in Iowa, the movie makes a point of emphasizing Ray’s upbringing on the East Coast and their shared college years at Berkeley in the 60’s.  They are outsiders who remain outsiders because their behavior is so stupefying to everyone around them, and yet they are the ones who are clearly ‘right.’

Are the more closed-minded characters reflections of anything broader than the characters themselves?  I don’t know, but the movie feels incredibly subversive like a novel written by the fictional Terence Mann (a character based on J.D. Salinger).  Field of Dreams on the surface is just a feel-good movie, and the broad takeaways could be seen as religious in nature.  When you look a little closer, however, this is a story about education winning out.  Or something, I’m still not sure, but it’s important that the Kinsellas are outsiders who bring something to America’s heartland.

Up Next: Duck Soup (1933), Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

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