"It's unbelievable." "It's more than that. It's perfect." So say Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) and Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) to each other as they stand transfixed before the ghosts of old American baseball stars idly pitching to each other on a present-day Iowa farm, in Field of Dreams. Viewers of the film might well find themselves echoing the sentiment. Field of Dreams is a shameless fantasy, virtually a fairy tale, and thus an easy candidate for cynical dismissal. Yet, the intensity and evident sincerity of its wishful thinking clearly touches a deep yearning in the hearts and minds of its audiences.
The story, as befits a fairy tale, is simple and the style of its telling equally straightforward. Kinsella, having just moved to a farm with his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) and child Karin (Gaby Hoffman), is out in the field when, one day, he hears the first of many enigmatic exhortations. "Build it and he will come ... go the distance ... ease his pain." The "it" he must build is revealed soon enough to be a baseball pitch, right there on his farm – at the risk of going bankrupt and alienating his family. But who is "he"? Kinsella pursues this "vision" – this dream – until, one night, the great, real-life ball player Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) shows up, young and idealistic as he was before the scandal of 1919 that put him and seven other members of the Chicago Whit Sox team out of the major league for life, on a corruption charge.
But that's only the beginning. The "dream field" keeps expanding, drawing unexpected characters, times and places into the weave of a single, benevolent destiny. There's Mann, a recluse who has given up the idealism of both his left-wing politics and his writing. There's "Moonlight" Graham (Burt Lancaster), an ageing doctor who remembers that he once almost realised his dream of playing major league baseball. And there's Ray himself, lamenting his unresolved relationship with his late father. Ultimately it becomes clear that the pain in question belongs not just to an individual, but to a whole nation suffering from a loss of "innocence" – or perhaps more accurately that Utopian sense of shared hope necessary for any community's survival.
Some will undoubtedly mock the film as an archetypal expression of the American Dream – an increasingly desperate fantasy of national redemption, fashioned for the cinema by such popular culture heroes as Frank Capra, Walt Disney and most recently Steven Spielberg. It is certainly true that, in the name of easy nostalgia, the film performs a rather remarkable sleight-of-hand whitewash job on the White Sox players; after all, they (Shoeless Joe included) did accept money to throw a game. It is also undeniable that the film is disgracefully male-centred, giving all the dreams and the intense emotions to fathers and sons, while relegating the female characters to purely "nurturing", peripheral roles.
Some may even detect an insidious apology for New Age entrepreneurship in James Earl Jones' remarkable speech: "They will come to this place and they will hand over their money ... because it's money they've got, and peace they want."
Yet the film still manages to be moving and fascinating – and not only to American audiences. The longing for a dream that might unite people, overcoming the alienation of everyday life, is both valid and pervasive in Western societies today. Writer/director Phil Alden Robinson – changing pace considerably after the black comedy of his underrated debut The Woo Woo Kid (1987), explores this longing without the excessive emotional manipulation of works like E.T. (1982) or The Color Purple (1985). Robinson's film is explicitly a tribute to the radical Utopian spirit of the 1960s – which, the fairy tale suggests, never really died. The '60s spirit now merely needs reawakening, alongside all the other spirits of love, loss and longing that populate our twentieth century.
What really saves Field of Dreams from schmaltz is its fresh sense of life and movement (the cast is uniformly wonderful), and above all its perfectly judged humour. The film admits at moments just how unbelievable this dream must be to the more whimsical and earthy inhabitants of its fictional world, as well as to some hardened moviegoers. Robinson advances his case carefully, and with qualifications: even the protagonists can hardly believe what is happening to them. What makes it all so poignant, finally, is this precarious balancing of the belief that dreams can come true with a secret doubt that they might not. Field of Dreams sends you out of the cinema uplifted, as it intends to, but in time you start hearing another inner voice, this time whispering: aren't some dreams just too perfect to ever be true?
MORE Robinson: Sneakers
© Adrian Martin September 1989