It all began the day Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), a struggling Iowa farmer, heard an unidentified voice whisper, “If you build it, he will come.” The voice continues to call out to him until he finally sees a vision of a baseball diamond in his corn field. Though purely on a whim, Ray plows the corn under in order to build the baseball field, and has the support of his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) and daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann) in doing so.
As Ray and his family wait for something to happen, the bills pile up and their financial burdens grow heavier. But just as they’re on the verge of losing all patience, Ray finds himself stunned to find former disgraced Chicago White Sox outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) out on the diamond. Despite the objections of his brother-in-law Mark (Timothy Busfield) and scoffing from the townspeople, Ray is now fully convinced by the sight of Shoeless Joe that he must finish the voice’s instructions, which involve meeting reclusive writer Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) and Dr. Archibald Graham (Burt Lancaster), a former ball player who never quite made it in the pros.
Ghosts, baseball, and Iowa cornfields – those three elements put together have ambitious disaster written all over it, yet this film somehow winds up working like a charm.
Field of Dreams is exactly the type of sentimental film Frank Capra would’ve directed had this been made back in the ’30s or ’40s. Though its reception was not initially kind (despite earning Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay nods and a spot on Roger Ebert’s top 10 best of 1989), its favorability has significantly increased over time with many claiming it to be one of Kevin Costner’s best films and one of the best baseball films of all-time. In fairness to those opposed, there’s an undeniable ridiculousness to Field of Dreams, but it’s a ridiculousness its characters are fully aware of.
“I have just created something totally logical.”, Ray says to Annie after completing the field.
On paper, this has cornball hokum written all over it, and could’ve been a sappy mess in the wrong hands. Very few, if any, have the magic touch that Capra had. Getting magical realism right is by no means a walk in the park, but writer/director Phil Alden Robinson puts together all the right ingredients to create an experience that sucker punches viewers right in the feels without being manipulative.
Field of Dreams is Robinson’s love letter to America’s pastime, fashioned as modern take on the Old Hollywood style of fable-fantasy (the bank/foreclosure subplot is a familiar motif of Capra’s films). The sights, smells, sounds – it’s a reminder of “all that once was good and it could be again”, while ultimately serving as a metaphor for the healing power of redemption and forgiveness. Key characters of this film each carry with them the weight of regrets from their past, be it failed relationships, tarnished legacies or potential legacies that never came to be, but that baseball diamond represents their second chance to ease their pain.
Who knew something as simple as a game of catch could reduce men across the world to tears?
Wisely, Robinson doesn’t aim to over-explain connections or why Ray sees ghosts to begin with. Suspension of disbelief is obviously required, but it’s easily made possible by way of the wonderful performances. Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan portray a couple believable enough for us to willingly follow them along on Ray’s quest (one of the nicer sub-themes of the movie is how, as it often is with marriage, Annie shares just as much a stake in Ray’s dream as he does). Ray Liotta effectively embodies the myth of Shoeless Joe without turning him into an unnecessary martyr or messiah figure. He’s simply a man who longs to reconnect with the game he loved so much.
James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster (in his final film appearance) provide great substance to smaller character roles, both of whom have moved on to other callings but in the back of their minds have always wondered what could’ve been in regard to their baseball pasts. Jones’s climactic ode to the game probably would’ve bordered on cringe-inducing if spoken out of any other mouth not named Morgan Freeman, but his iconic voice and articulation turns it into poetry. Though only an extended cameo, Lancaster reminds us why he was one of the greatest actors of his generation. Even with only three scenes, he provides us with such a great sense of Moonlight Graham’s past. Just one chance at bat, that one chance he never got in just the half inning he played, would mean the world to him, but as much of a regret as it may be, Graham’s gained the wisdom over the years that perhaps it was never meant to be.
“Fifty years ago, for five minutes you came within – you came this close. It would kill some men to get so close to their dream and not touch it. God, they’d consider it a tragedy.”, Ray tells Graham.
“Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes… now that would have been a tragedy.”
Given that it was his final film prior to passing away in 1994, there’s something quite poignant about Moonlight Graham’s walk-off into the cornfield as the players bid him farewell. When Shoeless Joe says, “Hey, rookie… you were good.”, it almost feels like a touching tip of the hat to an illustrious career.
It’s a tricky feat having to balance sports, fantasy and human drama, but a wonderful cast and Phil Alden Robinson’s script, which reins in the fantastical elements with its grounded touch, pull off the tightrope act beautifully. Though some may find Field of Dreams to be shamelessly sentimental, like the legendary Frank Capra before him, Robinson embraces that sentimentality wholeheartedly, adapting W. P. Kinsella’s novel into sweet, uplifting fable of second chances that treads a fine line between genuinely heartfelt and eye-rolling corniness.