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When primal forces of nature tell you to do something, the prudent thing is not to quibble over details.

Field of Dreams
(1989)

(SPOILERS) There’s a near-Frank Darabont quality to Phil Alden Robinson producing such a beloved feature and then subsequently offering not all that much of note. But Darabont, at least, was in the same ballpark as The Shawshank Redemption with The Green MileSneakers is good fun, The Sum of All Our Fears was a decent-sized success, but nothing since has come close to his sophomore directorial effort in terms of quality. You might put that down to the source material, WP Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, but the captivating magical-realist balance hit by Field of Dreams is a deceptively difficult one to strike, and the biggest compliment you can play Robinson is that he makes it look easy.

Indeed, I can only point to a couple of bum notes here, not really even that in the final analysis. The subplot involving Annie Kinsella (Amy Madigan) protesting a desire to ban library books feels what it is, a sop to provide an underdeveloped character with a demonstrable beat. When I say that Annie is underdeveloped, I mean that she’s there as an adjunct to main character Ray (Kevin Costner), rather than having agency in her own right; that’s usually a criticism, but there’s something delightful about the manner in which Annie is right there with her husband’s bat-shit crazy decisions (from "If you build it, he will come" onwards). Even when she thinks he has gone too far, she ends up supporting him (they have the same dream). It needs to be emphasised too that Madigan is absolutely wonderful in the role.

Now, I know the whole book banning subplot is in aid of finding and easing the pain of Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), and that the nature of this kind of movie is making apparently unmotivated magical connections between people and events, but the bridge between the famous radical author and baseball didn’t entirely land for me, and might have benefited from further finessing. Once it’s set up, I have no issues – Jones’ performance is absolutely one of the movie’s highlights, and Mann’s trajectory from curmudgeon to apostle is utterly winning – but the groundwork is a bit sketchy. It might be because the shorthand that everyone loves baseball – not Jones in real life, however – isn’t quite enough for me.

The other very vague beef I have is merely a comparative one. I do find the final scene between Costner and his dad on the baseball field affecting, but I’m more moved by the marvellous performances and character arcs of Jones/Mann and Burt Lancaster as Moonlight Graham. There’s such a warmth, acceptance and assured genuineness from Lancaster in his final role, of a man who has no regrets about his path in life even as he’d like to know how he’d have fared if it had taken a different course, and bringing that home so neatly in the cycle of choice that has his younger self (Frank Whaley) come to the aid of Ray’s daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffman). It’s perfectly elegiac and poignant.

Costner is absolutely in his element here too. He was at his best as an icon of yesteryear, upholding a value system indebted to nostalgia and a time and place that never was, or an earnest wistfulness for what might have been (Dances with Wolves, The Untouchables, JFK). It’s easy to mock his choices as his star power grew (and consequently quickly dissipated) but there were a few years where he was pitch perfect in roles that could have been tailor-made for him. He can be sincere, quiet, self-effacing and here is all those things, while showing an easy chemistry with every one of his co-stars (notably, Hoffman, in an amusingly precocious 1992 interview, attested amongst other things to her disdain for John Hughes, Macauley Culkin and Robinson – he “didn’t know anything about children” and “was awful to me” – said how “nice and supportive” Costner was, so he did have his fans). His delivery of “Trust me Karin, it’s not funny. The man is sick. Very sick” in response to his daughter enjoying Harvey is perfection.

Revisiting Field of Dreams, on the one hand, it’s exhibiting the aspirational nostalgia that would later be a key to the enduring love for The Shawshank Redemption, but it’s also very much pledged to its stake in 1960s idealism. I suspect that hadn’t seemed as significant previously because the prior period was foregrounded, the one focussing on the players involved in the Black Sox Scandal (particularly with Sayles’ Eight Men Out having been released not long prior). But Field of Dreams could almost be a heightened companion piece to The Big Chill in some respects, right down to giving its ghost from that film (Costner was the corpse) a flesh-and-blood role here; Mann’s time of prominence was the '60s, the travelogue section of the movie is awash with songs from the period, and Annie is given to profess “Just like the '60s again” on battling book-banning, small-minded bigots.

I can’t emphasise enough how Field of Dreams shouldn’t work. It ought to be unacceptably mawkish, heavy-handed and treacly, and completely run aground with its adherence to baseball as a symbol for all that is great about America – someone even says as much at one point. But it isn’t, and the key to that is keeping it low-key. Even Costner playing ball with dad at the end didn’t originally have him saying “dad”, which speaks volumes. There’s a stillness and ambience here that creeps up on you the way (most likely) Ed Harris whispering to Costner in the field does. John Lindley’s magic hour photography underlines that simmering peacefulness, as does James Horner’s score, which knows when to leave silence for effect. Even the hissable types (Timothy Busfield as Annie’s brother) and the threat to the farm don’t tip over into full-blown melodrama, because Robinson keeps sight on the underlying purity of a routinely mockable idea – belief, or faith, in ideas beyond the merely tangible. It’s this element, as much as the father-son bonding and the chance to correct things that couldn’t be corrected (a very straightforward and unnuanced idea in essence, but the construction yields the satisfaction), that sustains the picture.

And yes, Field of Dreams is thoroughly life-affirming and shamelessly upbeat in its vision of an ultimately benign universe (although, when you break it down, dad asking son if Iowa was heaven and then telling Ray heaven exists suggests he isn’t sure on the one hand and on the other that he has direct experience of it). But why not? Most pictures that try to play that hand end up coming across as hopelessly trite.

Field of Dreams was nominated for Best Picture, but received only two other nods (Adapted Screenplay and Score), all three well-deserved. Although, Jones and Lancaster ought to have been recognised in the Supporting Actor category (certainly over Brando), and the cinematography is more memorable than several finalists. Nevertheless, of that year’s Best Picture nominees, Field of Dreams is for me the most satisfyingly wrought tale, managing to walk a difficult tightrope of sincerity without plunging into syrupy tweeness. It goes the distance.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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