Field of Dreams (1989)

This film tells the story of farmer and family man Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), who one day hears a voice compelling him to convert a piece of his land into a baseball field. The line “If you build it, they will come” (which is never uttered exactly like that in the film, though the sentiment is definitely expressed) is typically used, sometimes dismissively, to refer to the notion that success automatically follows those who follow their vision and create something worth throwing money at. The movie bears that out, to a degree, and more specifically makes that vision something that fills a niche and satisfies a demand customers didn’t previously realise they had. But this economic reading is a bit reductive, because there’s more to the film than that.

The screenplay gets the actual creation of the field over with quickly, which is just as well, since up to that point, the movie’s pace is rather tepid. It thankfully picks up once the field stands and Ray gets several more cryptic messages. The film then turns into a sort of road movie whose ultimate purpose it is to spiritually reconcile Ray and his dead, baseball-obsessed father. It also adds the reclusive writer and civil rights icon Terrence Mann to its cast. James Earl Jones as Mann gives Field of Dreams a gravitas it probably doesn’t entirely deserve, and he is the film’s real anchor without whom it would likely fall apart completely.

I like Kevin Costner as an actor and a director, but I don’t think his performance here is particularly noteworthy, nor his character particularly interesting. Ray doesn’t really wrestle very much with the decision to build the field, despite the fact that everybody around him tells him it’s folly and likely to make his farm financially unviable. But his wife (Amy Madigan, who is good in a largely thankless role) trusts him, and Ray has faith. A comparison to Jeanne d’Arc, who also heard voices in her head prompting her to take action, is probably unavoidable, but Jeanne d’Arc was burned at the stake. We are told of the real-life stakes for Ray, but because of the film’s mellow magical realism atmosphere, I for one never took them seriously. Neither does Ray. We never actually see him working the farm, so there’s no contrast between the times before and after the field has been built, another case of telling the audience rather than showing us. We never need to fear that anything bad is going to happen (or that Ray me be insane) because the movie wears its intentions on its sleeve.

I’ve seen this film compared to the work of Frank Capra. I can understand that, but Capra always made sure to ground his protagonists and give them some edge. Jimmy Stewart’s characters in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939), for instance, come very close to utter defeat, and they both fight as much against systemic corruption and cruelty as they’re fighting against individual antagonists. Even with those aspects, I’m not a fan of Capra, finding him too corny and manipulative; and Field of Dreams doesn’t even have them: its sentimentality and self-righteousness are unapologetic and unwhetted.

Still, it’s a hard movie to dislike. It’s undeniably sweet in its lack of realism, and once you get used to the idea that you’re watching an unabashed modern fairy tale playing by its own rules, it’s easy to get sucked in and applaud while being emotionally manipulated. With its emphasis on the importance of faith, its sort-of celebration of the entrepreneur, its recognition of baseball as the quintessential American sport (while conveniently overlooking or handwaving the less savoury moments in its history), and its defence of nostalgia, I can see why Field of Dreams has become a much-loved classic. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the film was a particular favourite among American conservatives (also much like Capra). It takes place in a sanitised make-believe universe with token conflicts that are easily resolved by the end of the film; Ray is rewarded for heeding divine advice. That universe doesn’t exist, but we would certainly very much like it to.

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