A man in old-fashioned baseball kit stands in a baseball diamond at the edge of a cornfield. He says to the farmer who owns it:”Is this Heaven?”
With a wry smile the farmer replies: “It’s Iowa”
“I could’ve sworn it was Heaven”
“Is there a Heaven?” the farmer asks
“Oh, yeah”, replies the baseball player, “It’s the place where dreams come true”
The farmer looks around, pauses, then says: “Maybe this is Heaven”
This lovely little snippet of dialogue by itself probably sounds quite surreal, but within the context of this superb film it makes perfect sense & is very moving. This is a film which I think, at least partially, subscribes to the ‘magical realism’ school of literature (coming as it does from a book by W.P. Kinsella) – a genre where the unreal & the magical is unquestioningly accepted as normal, although here the magical happenings are at first greeted with scepticism.
Corn farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is working in his field when he hears a mysterious voice saying “If you build it he will come”. Naturally he thinks he’s probably losing it but soon afterwards he has a vision of a floodlit baseball field where the corn should be. Ray is haunted by the spectre of his late father (from whom he inherited the farm), & is afraid that at 36 he is becoming just like like him, a man who he only remembers as being old before his time, who “never did one spontaneous thing in all the time I knew him”. Motivated by this fear & also by his having grown up in the 60’s with it’s embracing of free & spontaneous living, he decides to go ahead, plow down some corn & build the field.
Ray decides that the ‘he’ refers to a famous baseball player named ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, who was part of a team who accepted money to lose the 1919 ‘World’ Series. Although he took the money it was very clear from the quality & manner of his play that he was not playing to lose, but, along with most of the team, he was banned for life anyway. Ray felt the field was to somehow give him a 2nd chance to take up the game he loved & was perhaps unfairly prevented from playing – which is even more weird than building the field as Jackson died in 1951.
Seasons go by & nothing happens, apart from from Ray & his wife (Amy Madigan) developing financial difficulties – caused mainly by the cost of building the field & the loss of revenue from the corn that the field replaced. Eventually ‘Shoeless’ Joe, or at least his ghost, (Ray Liotta) does find his way onto the field, along with the rest of his team, & they are happily knocking the ball about. ‘The Voice’ however hasn’t finished with Ray & he feels directed to go to Boston to meet seminal 1960’s author & civil rights activist Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), & take him to a baseball game – so off he goes.
Meanwhile the farm is in danger of repossession & Ray is forced into making a decision…
I think it’s important to point out that this is NOT a film about baseball, despite appearances, & despite the game receiving it’s fair share of passionate eulogising. Instead baseball is used as a metaphor to highlight the film’s major themes, & used to brilliant effect.
Now, I like to think I’m not a particularly sentimental type of guy. However, I’ve now seen ‘Field of Dreams’ 3 times, & every time I found it to be the most powerfully, gut-wrenchingly moving film I have ever experienced. It’s done in a completely non-sentimental & non-cliched way: there’s no lingering death scene with friends & family gathered around the bedside; the hero doesn’t walk off into the sunset to a certain death to save his friends, accompanied by a crescendo of violins – yet there are scenes & situations here that if you aren’t at least touched by then, to paraphrase Bette Davis, you probably need to ‘put your VCR where your heart should be’. I’m not going to spoil the ending by giving away too much detail, but Costner beautifully delivers a line there that I think ranks alongside Rutger Hauer’s “Time to die” in ‘Blade Runner’ as probably the most moving in cinema history – made all the more so because of it’s simplicity.
It’s this simplicity that I think is one of the film’s strengths; everything is beautifully understated & by this director Phil Alden Robinson allows the power of the story to create it’s own impact. The dialogue is as you would expect from ordinary people talking in ordinary ways (albeit in an extraordinary context); the settings are banal: a corn farm, a baseball field, a school hall, a city street, an office, a city apartment; & the acting – particularly Costner – is beautifully understated to match. The cinematography is terrific & somehow manages to transform these very ordinary settings into magical places – places “where dreams come true” – & running throughout the film is a simple but hauntingly beautiful musical theme which complements the magical atmosphere perfectly.
The screenplay too is superb – clever, politically astute, deeply moving & at times very funny. The scene where Ray 1st meets Terence Mann & tries to get him to come to a baseball game with him is one of the film’s highpoints & is extremely funny & witty – two Hollywood heavyweights in top form slugging it out brilliantly. (“I’m going to beat you with this crowbar ‘til you go away!” “But you’re a pacifist!” “Shit!”). All the acting is first rate: Jones is as mesmerising as ever, Liotta is perfect as ‘Shoeless’ Joe, Madigan is ideal as the starry-eyed supportive wife, even Gaby Hoffman is terrific as their very young daughter, & there’s an absolutely magical cameo by Burt Lancaster – but if ever anyone should doubt the star quality of Kevin Costner those doubts should be dispelled by his performance here. He is utterly convincing as an ordinary but open-minded guy dealing with heavy issues, & his performance is laid back & charming but at the same time charged with powerful emotional intensity.
One of the things that most struck me about this film is the perfect symmetry of it’s structure: the story unfolds at just the right pace, & is rounded off in a climax which takes us right back to the film’s beginning, tying up loose ends & brilliantly forcing us to view the story in a quite different light. The movie’s major themes are echoed in a myriad of little touches – for instance the classic James Stewart film ‘Harvey’ on the TV in an early scene; Ray messing up when 1st trying to hit a ball to ‘Shoeless’ Joe then straight away retrieving the ball & hitting him a beauty – this is a directorial tour-de-force.
It’s the movie’s themes which really provide it’s power – in a context of contrasting the idealism of the ‘60’s with ‘80’s cynicism & selfishness, it’s all about having a 2nd chance at life, about being able to go back & correct past mistakes – particularly in relation to parents & family – about recreating the past, about being able to achieve long-held but unrealised dreams. By extension, given that this is impossible, the simple but profound message of this movie must be: sort your life out, take hold of your dream, even if it means going out on a limb & taking huge risks – & do it now ‘cos it’s the only chance you’ve got!
This is not a visually stunning SFX-filled spectacular, it’s not a Hitchcockian masterpiece of suspense, by comparison it’s a quiet little movie; but one that is magical, powerful & magnificent, & try as I might I can’t fault it.