Program Notes: Field of Dreams (1989)
Field of Dreams (1989) may be the finest movie ever made about baseball.
Not the game of baseball as it’s actually played. I’m talking about baseball as a mythic place in the America psyche, a place of eternal summer in which fathers and sons wile away the afternoons in an endless game of catch.
Baseball which, in the words of Field co-star James Earl Jones, “reminds us of all that was good and will be again.”
Okay, if at this point you haven’t got a lump in your throat, either you’re not a guy or you’re that rare guy who is utterly immune to baseball’s siren song.
Actually, the main purveyors of this delightful fantasy are novelist W.P. Kinsella, whose Shoeless Joe laid the groundwork, and director Phil Alden Robinson, whose previous film In the Mood (starring Patrick Dempsey as a teen-age Lothario) gave no hint of his skill at creating a fantasy for adult men.
Ray Kinsella (yes, writer Kinsella basically made himself the leading man of his yarn) is a flower child-turned-corn producer who must own the only farmhouse in Iowa decorated with an Andy Warhol print of Marilyn Monroe.
Ray (Kevin Costner) is strolling through his cornfield one evening when he hears a voice whispering the soon-to-be immortal words: “If you build it, he will come.”
Build what? He who? Ray relates this mystery to his hippy-dippy wife (Amy Madigan), whose response is: “Do you think maybe this could be an acid flashback?”
(See how clever that is? By mocking the film’s woo-woo sensibilities the moviemakers are actually breaking down our resistance to Field’s fantastic elements. Nice one.)
Things would be simpler for Ray if it was an acid flashback. For he’s had a vision, and this is not a world that looks kindly on prophets and visionaries.
Ray gets it into his head that he should plow under several acres of corn and build a regulation field. If he does he’ll be visited by none other than “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, one of the famous “Black Sox” who were kicked out of the majors for throwing the 1919 World Series.
And as you undoubtedly already know, that’s precisely what happens.
Virtually devoid of special effects, Field of Dreams succeeds by adhering completely and unquestioningly to its own pleasantly baffling logic. It’s disarmingly sweet and charmingly funny.
And it is beloved precisely because it discovers beneath the banalities of everyday reality an unsuspected chain of cause and effect, a vast puzzle of seemingly disconnected but interlocking events stretching back to before our births and guiding our actions still.
Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) and the other banished White Sox do materialize to play on Ray’s field. But while Ray, his wife, and daughter can talk to and even shake hands with these phantoms, others cannot. Ray’s money-grubbing brother-in-law (Timothy Busfield) wants to buy the financially-troubled farm; he can see only an empty patch of grass.
Just when you think the movie has nowhere to go, Ray gets another message from beyond. He’s to go on a road trip to Boston, kidnap a reclusive writer and baseball nut (Jones), and proceed to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. There a cryptic message on the scoreboard (only they can see it) directs them to Minnesota to look up “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster, no less), whose major league career consisted of a half-inning in the outfield back in 1922.
This may be the perfect Costner performance. He makes Ray a simple guy who can’t understand the bizarre demands made of him but decides that this may be his last chance to act crazy before middle-aged respectability sets like concrete. His childlike enthusiasm is contagious.
In the film’s most sublime moment, the newly resurrected spirit of Shoeless Joe looks around Ray’s baseball diamond and asks: “Is this heaven?”
With a happy grin, Ray answers: “It’s Iowa.”
But in the cosmology of Field of Dreams, there’s really no difference.
Other films in the series “Hollywood Homers”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- June 2: Field of Dreams (1989) Rated PG
- June 9: Eight Men Out (1988) Rated PG
- June 16: Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) Rated PG
- June 23: A League of Their Own (1992) Rated PG
- June 30: The Rookie (2002) Rated PG
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- June 4: Major League (1989) Rated R
- June 11: Damn Yankees! (1958) Not Rated
- June 18: Bull Durham (1988) Rated R
- June 25: The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings (1976) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.