WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Iowan farmer Ray Kinsella does the bidding of a mysterious voice he hears in his fields and builds a baseball diamond, which is soon inhabited by ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and other ghosts of players past. However, building the park is just the start of a voyage which introduces Ray to intriguing characters, both living and dead – to the potential detriment of his family’s financial prospects.
‘If you build it, he will come.’ So says a persistent voice in the head of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), who is also troubled by visions of a baseball field taking the place of much of the corn on his farm. Ray’s wife Annie (Amy Madigan) and daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann) are surprisingly supportive when Ray tells them what he has been tasked to do, and they create the pitch, complete with bleachers* and floodlights, even though the project wipes out their savings and reduces the yield of their land.
Before long, Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) turns up, bringing along the rest of the infamous, disgraced Chicago White Sox team of 1919; yet the voice is not finished with Ray, and following an ambiguous command to ‘ease his pain’, he sets off for Boston to meet retired writer Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), a leading light of the 60s who has become embittered and reclusive. Luckily, the pair bond over baseball and they both witness the lowly statistics for Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham flashing up at Fenway Park.
Ray meets ‘Doc’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) despite the fact that he’s been dead for some time, but fails to tempt him back to Iowa to play with legends; however, on the road Ray and Terry meet up with a young Archie (Frank Whaley) who joins the ever-growing roster of players on the farm. The only problem is, as Annie’s brother Mark (Timothy Busfield) is at pains to point out, a field full of ghosts hardly anyone can see doesn’t exactly rake in the cash.
A sentimental, fantastical tale of characters searching for redemption, filmed in the golden, glowing light of countless Iowan sunsets, was always destined to be cornier than the fields in which Ray unquestioningly builds his diamond – and that’s without the father-son issues running riot through the movie or the climactic drama which unfolds around long-haired moppet Karin. However, Field of Dreams miraculously spins its magical yarn without drowning in treacle or feeling overly glib (Tom Hanks, originally offered the part of Ray Kinsella, would surely have given the film an inappropriately comic sensibility).
Part of the reason is the film’s unfussy acceptance of the supernatural, which helps us to absorb the fantastical element of the story and understand why Ray’s wife goes along with his plans, rather than packing him straight off to the doctor – there’s a clever reference to Harvey too. Another part is the sturdy acting of all concerned: Costner is very good as the ordinary man driven to do extraordinary things by forces he doesn’t understand, while Madigan is almost his equal as Annie, her acquiescence driven by a free-spirited belief in following her instinct, rather than a simpering determination to stand by her man.
‘Okay…’, I hear you say, ‘but a two-hour movie about dead baseball players? Really?’ Were Field of Dreams adequately summarised this way, I would agree; however, Robinson’s film (really, W.P. Kinsella’s story) cannily escapes the confines of the sport during Ray’s journey to find Terrence Mann, and James Earl Jones plays the part with gravity, aggression, humour and intelligence, offsetting Costner’s earnest pursuits.
Together with the touching story of ‘Moonlight’ Graham’s frustratingly abridged career, the film builds up to an emotional climax which works well, even if you don’t buy Mann’s emotive description of baseball as a metaphor for the American nation. Field of Dreams transcends its subject and reveals itself as a moving meditation on choices, loss and regret; subjects that will inevitably have some reaching for sick bags, but for many a slice of satisfyingly tear-jerking wish-fulfilment – and that’s without the final reveal which sends the whole thing over the top.
The story, the golden light and James Horner’s pretty score are all plentiful compensation for elements that don’t hang together so well, such as the cheap presence of Busfield as Annie’s money-minded brother representing ‘The Man’, all the baby boomer stuff about the 60s, or the jarring time-travel mechanics when Ray meets Doc Graham in 1972.
I’m completely lukewarm about baseball and the American Midwest, but I really liked Field of Dreams. It is by definition unrealistic, and in the end exists only to tug at the heartstrings as hard as it can. On the other hand, there are a host of warm performances from the likes of Liotta, Lancaster, Whaley, Madigan, Hoffmann and especially Costner, before he became the all-conquering hero of Dances with Wolves and the egomaniacal spender of other people’s money on guff like Waterworld and The Postman. He’s no Jimmy Stewart, and Field of Dreams is no It’s a Wonderful Life, but as fantasies go this is one of the finest to emanate from Hollywood in many years.
NOTES: Seats, for non-American audiences. I know, I thought ‘seats’ was a perfectly good word too.