“Field of Dreams” is based on a novel by W.P. Kinsella that I thought to be practically unfilmable. It’s about Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), a ’60s liberal, who never got along with his hard-bitten father about anything but their love of baseball. Costner follows his wife to Iowa, where he becomes a struggling farmer who begins to hear voices, “If you build it he will come,” and see visions of a baseball diamond where his corn is supposed to be growing. Phil Alden Robinson daringly sets out for Capra country here, and he is smart enough to know that today’s post modern ironic society is a little skeptical when it comes to full-out romantic blathering. Costner finds his daughter watching the movie “Harvey,” where Jimmy Stewart pals around with an invisible rabbit, and switching off the television implores her to “trust me…it is not funny. The man is sick, very sick.”
Well, soon enough, Ray is plowing under his field to the strains of “Crazy” by Patsy Kline and building his own regulation-sized baseball field. Amy Madigan plays his unbelievable wife, who despite their financial problems goes along with Ray’s belief that building a place to play for the eight 1919 Chicago White Sox, who were suspended from baseball for throwing the World Series, will repair the romanticism that the incident killed in his cold bitter father. Baseball is all about fathers and sons you know.
I’m forever fascinated with the people’s romance for the 1919 Black Sox, as they were eventually called. Every once in a while a nutty Congressman tries to clear the name of fabled illiterate slugger Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta). Don’t they have anything better to do up on the hill? People can’t seem to handle the fact that you could be a terrific ballplayer and corrupt as hell all at the same time. “Now he did take [gamblers] money, but they could never prove he did a single thing to lose those games.” Hogwash. For a full examination of the Black Sox saga check out John Sayles’ excellent “Eight Men Out,” or even better, read the Eliot Asimov book of the same name. Robinson’s film doesn’t even know that Jackson was a southpaw.
The author of Shoeless Joe, who nobly named his protagonist after himself, also had a hard-on for Iowa. I was in Iowa once and the only things I noticed were corn, teen pregnancies, and Coke machines that also sold bait.
It takes a while and people start talking, but pretty soon all these old dead baseball players start walking out of the corn and tossing the ball around. Of course, only the true believers can see them. Timothy Busfield is the chief non-true believer. This film is otherwise well-casted but Timothy Busfield is in my opinion a pretty weak choice for a villain. Black Sox first baseman Chick Gandil would have kicked Timothy Busfield’s a*s in seconds flat.
Eventually, the voice starts sending the broke farmer across the country running errands of good will and hope. In the book, the chief errand involved recluse writer J.D. Salinger. Here, he is replaced by fictional ’60s protest writer Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones). According to the movie he coined the term, “Make love, not war.”
The movie has a stirring speech about the wonderfulness of baseball by Jones as its centerpiece. Of course, it never explains why a Black activist from the ’60s would be so taken with the 1919 Black Sox. The Black Sox were called that because their owner was too cheap to keep their uniforms clean. Blacks were prohibited from playing baseball in 1919. I have a feeling the pre-eminent writer of the ’60s would be aware of this.
In the end, everyone is redeemed, father and son are reunited and the endlessly hurtful chasms of time are healed. If you’re in the right mood this movie will bring a tear to your eye. If you’re not you’re probably already watching “Reservoir Dogs”.