Phil Alden Robinson’s 1989 drama Field of Dreams explores issues of faith, family, and healing with a gentle touch through Ray Kinsella’s strange journey into the past.
Former hippies Ray (Kevin Costner) and Annie (Amy Madigan) Kinsella decide to buy a corn farm in her home state of Iowa. Ray is a doting father to their precocious daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffman), and seems to be a regular old joe whose life hasn’t turned out quite as he planned by 36. Until one day out in the fields he hears a voice with its now-iconic statement: If you build it, he will come. These ominous words coupled with a story about the ghosts of baseball history could set the stage for a horror movie, instead, Field of Dreams is comfort food for the soul.
Being city folk, Ray was already an outsider in their small town. But when word gets around that not only is he hearing voices, but also decides to plow under his corn to build a baseball field, his reputation takes another huge nosedive. Ray thinks that by building the field he can bring back he and his father’s hero Shoeless Joe Jackson, the disgraced ballplayer who was accused of throwing the 1919 World Series.
Unfortunately, building the field bankrupted him and Annie and they are suddenly on the verge of losing their home. Even worse, Ray’s baseball field sits empty amid the cornfields, taunting him with this huge leap of faith he’s made that is about to land him smashed on the floor with his family also in financial ruin. His mid-life crisis has worsened his feelings of inadequacy and his fear that he’s turned into his emotionally withholding father. But what reads as this mid-life crisis turns into something far more profound.
On the brink of foreclosure, Ray’s field finally receives its first visitor. Emerging from the corn like a specter, Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) appears. He talks about his wasted life after he was kicked out of baseball. His pure love for the game. How nothing else ever came close to those hours on the field. He asks Ray if the other seven who were also kicked out of baseball for cheating could come to visit, too. “I built this for you,” Ray says, to which Shoeless Joe responds with a secret smile.
But The Voice isn’t through with Ray just yet. His next message — “Go the distance” — takes him from Iowa to Boston to find Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), a James Baldwin-esque author-activist who has become disillusioned with the state of America and retired from the public eye. Ray thinks he needs to take Terence to a baseball game in order to receive his next instructions. Which takes both Ray and Terence on yet another journey to Chisholm, Minnesota and then back to the farmlands outside of Iowa City, Iowa as the Kinsella’s are on the eve of foreclosure.
With its haunting and melancholy score by James Horner, Field of Dreams is a perfect example of magical realism artfully executed on screen. Relying on Phil Alden Robinson’s beautiful writing rather than flashy special effects, the moments of time travel are realistic and absolutely enchanting. I’ve been watching this film for 30 years, and I never fail to get chills when Doc Graham (Burt Lancaster) and later his younger self Archie “Moonlight” Graham (Frank Whaley) show up, existing outside of time and death in ways that are totally believable even for the sci-fi and ghost story aspects.
With the exception of Kevin Costner, whose wooden performance is the weakest link of this film, the acting is superb. Amy Madigan steals every scene she is in with a huge range of emotion and lots of tongue-in-cheek fourth-wall breaking that makes Field of Dreams sometimes feel like a play. Annie’s shutdown of neo-fascism when a racist mother at Karin’s school proposes banning books like The Wizard of Oz and The Diary of Anne Frank is perfectly relevant to today, and it remains absolutely badass.
James Earl Jones shines as Terence Mann, a rare moment of a three-dimensional and complicated Black man on the screen that was ahead of its time in 1989 and still is in some ways now. His arc is nuanced and authentic. His embodiment of this disillusioned and cynical man on the road back toward faith is nothing short of masterful. He was robbed of an Oscar nomination for this role.
And seeing Ray Liotta in one of his rare nice-guy roles is such a treat. He brings humor, pathos, and heartache to his portrayal of the wounded Shoeless Joe Jackson. I wish he’d had more opportunities to play roles like this rather than quickly getting pigeonholed as a villain.
Themes of family, faith, and redemption are not the only batters on deck in Field of Dreams. The complicated dynamics between fathers and sons and the generational differences that define them are handled with a compassionate touch. This is nurturing masculinity at its finest, and so unique for a sports movie in particular; sports often tend to rely on toxic masculinity on screen and in real life.
Field of Dreams is also about ghosts and their unfinished business, as well as that of the living. A story about those unfulfilled dreams and the sometimes elusive opportunities to seize those moments and do them over right. It’s about making peace with the mistakes of our parents and finding ways to heal those fundamental wounds.
It is about the good kind of nostalgia, those happy moments from childhood that seem so far away and impossible to recreate, that the field of dreams accomplishes just by existing. This is a story about passion, not just for baseball, but also a passion to do something with our one precious life even if people think it’s crazy. Field of Dreams also reminds us how faith can appear as madness to those not in the loop.
Field of Dreams is also about penance. “I can’t bring my father back,” Ray says to Terence after telling him about the awful last time they spoke. Terence replies, “But at least you can bring back his hero.” The intimacy between men in this film is arguably the most exceptional thing about it. The only thing that dates it is baseball as the all-American sport, which has been waning in popularity for decades now due to uneven distribution of team resources, unlike the systems that have helped American football thrive.
In the end, Ray brings back far more than just Shoeless Joe, realizing that his quest wasn’t for his father after all, but rather to fix the things broken in himself that he couldn’t forgive until now. And Terence finds his new path, too, as well as remembering his writer’s soul that he had been repressing for too many years. In so many ways Field of Dreams remains pitch perfect. As timeless as the ghosts who emerge from Ray’s field, one by one, batters up and ready to play ball.