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American Pastime: On the Sustained Power of Field of Dreams

Phil Alden Robinson’s “Field of Dreams” (1989) may not be one of the greatest movies of all time but it surely has earned an astonishing amount of affection. It belongs to a very select group of features in which the audience doesn’t need to be familiar with the core subject to know that they are dealing with something very personal, though it surely doesn’t hurt. The film came out at a time when making a great baseball movie was deemed as something almost unthinkable. It is hard to imagine a greater achievement in Kevin Costner’s career than having made “Bull Durham” (1988) and “Field of Dreams” back-to-back, two entries that clearly fit the bill. Sadly, Costner’s eventual third turn at bat (so to speak) in “For Love of the Game” (1999) exemplified precisely what’s wrong with the vast majority of baseball movies to begin with.

“Field of Dreams” deals with Kevin Costner’s 1960s teen-rebel-grown-into-farmer Ray Kinsella in a very Smallville-like Iowa town. Ray builds a baseball field right under his crop following a “voice” only he can hear, and allows disgraced and long since dead Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) to come back and play the game he was banned from due to his role in fixing the 1919 World Series. Keeping the field becomes a nearly impossible journey, even as it becomes a cathartic site for a group of other characters of different backgrounds. Their common bond is the emotional void in their lives.

Like all great baseball movies, “Field of Dreams” is not propelled by the intricacies of game itself nor by the amazing plays that it can provide. The years have proved how easy and shallow it’s always been for Hollywood screenwriters to come up with these incredible feats for their baseball-related characters, like hitting a bottom-of-the-ninth, game-winning home run that completely destroys a stadium’s lighting system (by smashing a single fuse, or like throwing a perfect game while living through several of life’s crossroads. “Field of Dreams” proves that it's much more rewarding to deal with the game’s subtleties or how it weighs on the lives of the characters from generation to generation. The film is really about how the game can mend the most common and painful mistakes people make, especially parents and their children. This cue was later followed by “Moneyball” (2011). I can recall how little sense it made back then to learn that someone was going to make a film based on a book about a new, scientific approach in putting together a baseball team, but it belongs on just about the same level as the Costner entries because it is really about not repeating life’s worst mistakes no matter how right the reasons seem.

“Field of Dreams” is among a few great films where audiences inadvertently find themselves dealing with their own deep personal issues. The movie explores several issues just like the true classics, like the loss of faith in what their lives have meant (“It’s a Wonderful Life”), doubts about their self-worth (“The Hustler”) or whether or not they’ll make it through life's most difficult stretches (“The Shawshank Redemption”). It’s amazing how corny several scenes from “Field of Dreams” could have turned out, like the moment when Kevin Costner gives his famous, border line dorky “No, it’s Iowa” reply to the “Is it heaven?” question. But as things turn out, he's the right actor, in the right part, in the right mood, and in the right movie to get away with something like that.

Here's the main reason "Field of Dreams" works: If you believe a movie can have a soul, this is the prime example. It’s hard to recall another entry that provides as many pure chills as this one. There’s James Earl Jones standing in front of the lights of a simple van on that Boston Street, giving a sublime speech to reassure the Costner character (and the audience) that “people will come” indeed. There's also that fantastic aerial, at night final shot of the seemingly endless line of cars that end up corroborating such a claim (though I’m under the impression most of them are going to have a hard time parking anywhere close to Costner’s farm). My favorite scene though is the one in which we see the face of Ray’s wife Annie, as she casually turns out the lights for her husband with one last act of support that will help him mend completely. Curiously enough, as unforgettable as these scenes became, they represent surprisingly little in by themselves. This must be the reason why when I first saw the trailer (which represents a perfect summary of the plot) just before the movie came out over three decades ago, it made no sense whatsoever. The devastating effect of "Field of Dreams" comes in part from the baggage the audience brings into it, but specially when one compounds all of its riches, including James Horner's soundtrack, one of the most sublime in memory. 

Despite all of these virtues, in my experience I’ve learned that “Field of Dreams” does have an unusual, polarizing, and wildly varied effect on audiences. This brings to mind the sequence where the characters who are overly preoccupied with the financial side of Costner’s baseball field just can’t see the group of dead baseball players right in front of their noses. Through the years, I’ve run into several people who just can’t appreciate the film; I don’t think this has anything to do with how good, smart, or empathetic they are but rather with the moment in life each of them just happens to be living through, how much they are willing to give themselves fully into what on the surface may seem like just another sports movie, and, yes, also because of their origin. 

This is one of those movies that simply didn’t catch down here in Mexico at all. When I first saw “Field of Dreams” with my parents in the late '80s, as much as I loved it, I was incredulous at their simple “what piece of crap did you bring us to see?” reaction when, curiously enough, having been able to see it with them was precisely what made me love it all the more in the first place. The term "Classic American Film" is often used simply because a movie is great and it is made in the US, but “Field of Dreams” more than lives up to such billing. Despite its very universal themes, this is a very American movie, dealing with a game that many around the world may love, but one that only carries true weight where it's an intrinsic part of growing up.

Gerardo Valero

Gerardo Valero is lives in Mexico City with his wife Monica. Since 2011 he's been writing a daily blog about film clichés and flubs (in Spanish) on Mexico's Cine-Premiere Magazine. His contributions to "Ebert's Little Movie Glossary" were included in the last twelve editions of "Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook."

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