FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)
Phil Alden Robinson; based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella
Why It's Here
I would argue that baseball has produced more truly great films than perhaps any other sport, yet when people ask me to name my favorite film about the grand old game, I always find myself reluctant to include Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams on the list. Not because I don't think it's a great film; obviously I do. It's because, honestly and deep down, I don't really believe it's a movie about baseball at all. On the surface, of course, the film, a 1989 Best Picture Oscar nominee, is about little else, telling the story of a down-to-earth Iowa farmer who, guided by a spectral voice that only he can hear, builds a baseball diamond in his cornfield, a magical place where the greats of the game's yesteryear emerge from the stalks for one more glorious course around the basepaths. But that's just plot, and the main lesson that Field of Dreams taught me about screenwriting is that, in the case of truly great films, the plot is very seldom what the film is really about.
In the screenwriting classes I've taken, we were always told that your entire film turns on the answer to one huge question: What does the protagonist want? Whether it's defeating the killer great white shark, finding the Ark of the Covenant, or merely winning the heart of a fair damsel, your hero always has some concrete, definable goal that is driving him forward to the film's climax. But these are once again largely plot-driven matters, and as such, I find this "essential" question too limiting in terms of expressing what is really driving your film. I believe it is really a two-part question, the second part of which is more germane to the true subject of your film: What does the protagonist want, and why do they want it? It's this second question that makes the noble act of storytelling about much more than the cold-blooded application of plot mechanics, that makes story an examination of who we are, where we've been, and where we're going or hope to go. It's the answer to this second question upon which the great tales of mythology and the greatest works of cinematic art have been built. Charles Foster Kane wants to be the most powerful man in the world to fill the void left by the loss of his family when he was a boy. Rick wants to help Victor and Ilsa escape from
A child of the '60s and newly minted farmer, Ray Kinsella is middle America down to his bones, and as he himself puts it, "until I heard the Voice, I had never done a crazy thing in my whole life." That Voice comes to him in the twilight of a perfect
One has to give credit to Robinson for recognizing source material, the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella (hmmm, can't imagine Ray's last name is a coincidence?), with one hell of a hook: a baseball diamond in the heart of America that brings long-dead boyhood heroes back to life to ply their superhuman trade once again. It's a great narrative distillation of the nostalgia that colors many of our feelings about the national pastime. But if a great hook was all Robinson had built his film upon, we would have ended up with merely a pleasant, fantastical summertime diversion rather than one of the greatest sentimental heart-tuggers since the glory days of Frank Capra. The magic of Field of Dreams lies in how it is driven not by its plot, nor by nostalgia for the baseball greats of yore, but by the deep, years-long regrets of its characters, regrets that often lead to the kind of pure escapism that baseball (and movies) so deftly provide, regrets that lie at the heart of nostalgia itself. What is nostalgia, after all, but a longing for a return to past times, perhaps to set right things left wrong?
Field of Dreams is driven by a quintet of characters who all have deep unresolved scars in their pasts, and who all in some way need the game of baseball to help rectify these regrets. Back in the '60s, Terence Mann was a preacher of the secular gospel of freedom, "the East Coast distributor of 'involved'", who wrote, marched and spoke out on behalf of "peace, love, dope". But then the Days of Rage turned into the years of disillusionment, with assassinations, Watergate, and all the rest of it settling upon his shoulders like a cloak of failure. By the time Ray comes to see him in
Terence never has to actually pick up a bat to receive his psychic closure, but for Shoeless Joe Jackson and "Moonlight" Graham, that bat is the whole point of the journey. Shoeless Joe was one of the great ballplayers of all time, a world-class fielder whose lifetime batting average is the third-highest in history. However, this record, indeed all his statistics, are not officially recognized by Major League Baseball. Along with seven other members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox, Shoeless Joe was found guilty (by baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, though absolved in a court of law) of conspiring with gamblers to throw the World Series and banned for life from baseball, prohibited from ever playing in or even buying a ticket to a professional game again. Shoeless Joe always maintained his innocence (Robinson's script says that Joe did take the gamblers' money but didn't throw the games, and doesn't dig into the issue much more than that; for a more clear-eyed cinematic examination of the subject, see John Sayles' excellent Eight Men Out), and as portrayed in Field of Dreams, he is a man incomplete, separated from his humanity by his banishment from the game. "Getting thrown out of baseball was like having part of me amputated," he says. "I'd have played for food money…shoot, I'd play for nothing." Shoeless Joe's journey to Ray's farm is perhaps the simplest of all the characters. If he can just play the game again, reclaim what he loved so much and threw away for a few dollars, all will be set right, and Ray's baseball diamond gives him (and soon all his disgraced fellow Black Sox) a chance to do just that.
"Moonlight" Graham's perspective on the game's place in his life is much more balanced. An unspectacular appearance in his one major-league game led him to realize the pro game was not for him, and he went back to his small Minnesota town, took up the doctor's black bag, and became an institution until his death in 1972 (that's right, seventeen years before the action of the film takes place…or didn't I mention that the good doctor is another of the film's ghosts?). He was loved by his town and his wife, and left a true legacy behind when he went to the great beyond. But Robinson uses "Moonlight" to remind us that even those with truly great lives still have things we wish we had done instead or done differently. "Moonlight"'s regret is that, despite his on-field appearance in that one game, he never got to face down a major league pitcher: "To stare him down, and just as he goes into his windup, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn't." The old sawbones does not think that his life would have been better lived on the basepaths ("If I had only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy."), but the pull of unfinished business is still strong enough to send his spirit, in the guise of his younger self (Frank Whaley) out to Iowa to shoulder that bat. Whereas Shoeless Joe sees the chance to play the game again as the culmination of a life wasted, for "Moonlight" Graham, it is the icing on the cake, the capstone to a life lived to its top that Ray's diamond provides for him.
And what about Ray? Seeing all these men realize their dreams and rectify their mistakes on his ballfield, he begins to grow frustrated with his own lack of closure: "I did it all. I listened to the voices, I did what they told me, and not once did I ask what's in it for me." But his frustration is at first a little hard to grasp, for in many ways, Ray, like Doc Graham, seems to be a man who more or less has it all. He has a loving and supportive wife, an bright, adorable daughter (a very amusing holy-fool performance by young Gaby Hoffman), and even though his farm is threatened with foreclosure, we know in our moviegoer's hearts that this is not going to happen, just as we know that getting Shoeless Joe to come and play baseball again was not Ray's true calling. In fact, if we've paid attention through the whole film, we already know where Robinson's screenplay has been leading Ray, the one piece of unfinished business in this picture-postcard American life. It's never the main driving force of the plot, but it's the emotional engine of every moment of the picture, and it's right there in the first words of the voice-over narration, spoken by Ray, that open the film and introduce, right at the outset, the fifth player in Robinson's quintet of characters: "My father's name was John Kinsella."
This narration that opens the film is not the tale of a love affair with baseball, but of the strained relationship between a father and son. A lifelong baseball fan and failed former minor-league catcher, John Kinsella (Dwier Brown) was crushed by the Black Sox scandal, an event that seems to have hardened his idealism and turned him into a prematurely old man, the state he found himself in when Ray was born in the early '50s. Ray's mother died when he was a toddler, and his checkered relationship with his father was rooted on a bedrock of baseball fandom. John put his son to bed with tales of past baseball greats (including Shoeless Joe), but their antagonism was first staked out by dueling team loyalties: "Dad was a Yankees fan, so naturally I rooted for Brooklyn, but when the Dodgers moved to L.A. in '58, we had to find other things to fight about. We did." Ray turned his back on his dad's salt-of-the-earth ideals, majoring in "the '60s" in college before marrying Annie and settling down…but by the time Ray buys his Iowa homestead, his dad has already been dead for fifteen years. Nevertheless, the old man's spirit hovers over Ray, weighing him down as much as the events of the late '60s have crushed the life out of Terence Mann. In fact, it's the legacy of John Kinsella that drives Ray to heed the Voice's command in the first place. After all, he's settled down, made a family, built a home…but is that all he's going to do? "I'm 36 years old," he tells Annie, "and I'm scared to death I'm turning into my father…he never did anything with his life." It's right after this conversation that he decides to build the baseball diamond and changes his destiny forever.
In the midst of all the excitement of the new ballfield and the ghostly ballplayers, Ray seems to forget about his dad for a while, but he's always there, under the surface, calling to his son like the Voice itself. He hooks the interest of Terence Mann upon first approaching him by mentioning that a character in one of his stories was named John Kinsella. Later, as they drive back to
Robinson's film has struck such a close nerve with people (mainly men) across
Truth be told, the more I think about it, the more I realize that Field of Dreams really is about baseball after all…just not about baseball as a game. It's about the American relationship to the game, about the many roles that baseball has played for Americans down through the decades. Baseball has been an edifice in a sea of shifting ideological entropy. It's been an avenue out of the slums and ghettoes for lower-class kids like Shoeless Joe. It's been an opportunity to reclaim boyhood enthusiasms for old men like "Moonlight" Graham. And it's been a healer, a balm on the difficult times and checkered relationships that color our lives and loves. The game is all things to all men, a second chance…a field of dreams. These days, however, Robinson's sentimental modern classic has taken on an added, somewhat tragic resonance. The just-passed presidential administration, with its preemptive wars and manipulations of truth, its defenses of torture and invasion of privacy, has, in the eyes of many, taken this country far afield of its ideals, and baseball, stricken with scandal and controversy, has mirrored that fall from grace. I think you would be hard pressed these days to find many Americans who would call baseball "the national pastime" with a straight face. Field of Dreams thus now stands not as a love letter to baseball, but a lamentation for it, a remembrance of things past, a song of regret as true and raw as Ray Kinsella's own. Nevertheless, Robinson's film, in an age of tarnished ideals and bruised emotions, might point the way to a new reconciliation of its own. If we'd all stop shouting and look at the things we have in common, the dreams and desires we share, the joy to be found in a simple game of catch, we just might ease our own pain. And