Written & Directed by Phil Alden Robinson
Only a few films ago, I explored the 1919 Chicago White Sox scandal with the 1988 film Eight Men Out. It must have been a popular topic back in the late 1980s, likely coinciding with the banishment of baseball legend Pete Rose around the same time for betting on the game, as both Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams, which explores the subject only lightly, indicate the players, and in particular “Shoeless” Joe Jackson perhaps should not have suffered a lifetime ban. As relevant as this story was in the late 1980s, it seems the story continues even today, with Commissioner Rob Manfred recently announcing that Pete Rose’s bid for reinstatement would be denied by Major League Baseball. I could easily spend the length of this review arguing and talking, not sure if there is a difference sometimes with sports, about my stance on Pete Rose, but that would be a disservice to what Field of Dreams stands for, so let’s segue instead to the wonderful film instead.
Based on a book by W.P. Kinsella, which I have never read, Field of Dreams is the story of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Coster) and his family (Amy Madigan and Gaby Hoffman), who live on a farm in Iowa. After hearing voices in his fields, Kinsella builds a baseball field at the voice’s ambiguous request, plowing under his major crop in order to do so. But the voices continue, sending him to Boston to meet up with a recluse author, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones), and to Minnesota to see a doctor who only ever played in one Major League game (Burt Lancaster). Meanwhile, his farm is in jeopardy as the family struggles with money after their corn fields have been depleted to make room for this magical baseball field, which features former legends of the game, like “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), returning to play the game they love, only to disappear back into the cornfields whence they came.
I have often heard varying opinions of the film Field of Dreams. Overall the response seems to be positive, but there are some who might call the film overly sentimental and disingenuous to the source material. Having never read the novel on which the film is based, I cannot comment on the film’s faithfulness, but I can comment on the sentimentality depicted in Field of Dreams. It is. It absolutely is sentimental to perhaps a sickening degree if you are not a lover of the game of baseball, or at least capable of empathizing with those who are. The sentimentality is Field of Dream‘s greatest strength in fact, the core of its message. The kooky premise of a voice talking to a farmer to build a field so ghosts of legends can return to play is outlandish, but so too are baseball fan’s love of the game.
Including Terrence Mann and Doc Graham in the story may seem out of place, but each brings an important element to the story of baseball, a unique viewpoint. For Kinsella, he longs for the type of connection he could have with his father, who emotionally neglected him as a child. For Mann, he has lost the dream of peace and love he so vocally supported in the past, longing for find his dream fulfilled. For Graham, he simply wants a chance to have a single at bat, something denied him in his past life as a Major League player. All these dreams can come true in Iowa, all these dreams can come true with baseball. What can be more corny and sentimental than that!? Nothing, quite honestly, but that is precisely the charm and attraction of Field of Dreams for baseball enthusiasts.
Baseball is ancillary to life for many. Perhaps baseball is not that required element to life, maybe it’s football instead, or reading, or music, or even movies. Whatever that special something is which gives you great joy, is the source of passion in your life, you can relate to Field of Dreams because, while it uses baseball specifically to relay its message, the message is universal. Life is not about achieving your dreams, but about pursuing them even when you’re not sure they can be accomplished, or even if everyone else tells you otherwise. I could try to talk about how perfect Burt Lancaster is here, or Kevin Costner, or James Earl Jones. I could talk about the film score, or the cinematography. But when a film like this connects so deeply to the root of the game of baseball, and its ability to transport us to our dreams, if even for a Sunday afternoon at the ballpark, or on a farm in Iowa, then the technical aspects become secondary.