The Screening Room: Field of Dreams

In All, Movies by Kyu

Terence Mann: Oh, my God.

Ray Kinsella: What?

Terence Mann: You’re from the sixties.

Ray Kinsella: Well, yeah, actually…

Terence Mann: [spraying at Ray with a insecticide sprayer] Out! Back to the sixties! Back! There’s no place for you here in the future! Get back while you still can!

Field of Dreams is the most Baby Boomer movie I’ve ever seen. The only one that possibly beats it is Forest Gump. Depending on how you look at it, Forest Gump is either insipid and unintentionally awful or a movie that hides a basic hatred for everything and everybody behind a maximally cynical veneer of insipidity, and depending on your views, both of those could describe the Boomer generation. But people have spilled a lot of ink about Gump, particularly for the way it treats Jenny and the American left, and for the fact that it won Best Picture at the Oscars over Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, and other fine films. Field of Dreams, on the other hand, is just as much a sloppy blowjob to the Baby Boomer generation, while being much harder to hate. I don’t even hate it, really. But for all our sakes, I’m going to try. This is The Screening Room. Welcome.

I would wager a lot of people have seen this film, even now, more than 25 years after its release. It was one of the top 20 highest grossing films of its year, and (more impressively) is the fifth highest grossing baseball film of all time, according to Box Office Mojo. More importantly, the film’s broad appeal and PG rating made it an excellent pick for cable syndication, and its endless rotation there was probably what cemented the film’s place in popular culture (even if you haven’t seen it, you know that “if you build it, they will come”–actually a misquote, because pop culture is dumb). Field of Dreams isn’t just popular, it’s pretty well respected, too. It was nominated for three Academy Awards that year (Screenplay, Score, and Best Picture), the American Film Institute put it in their top ten fantasy films list (and if there’s any film establishment more moribund than the Academy, it’s the AFI [warning: Seanbaby]), IMDB currently rates it at a 7.6, and the Rotten Tomatoes rating for critics and audiences is a “Hell, why not watch it?” 86%. The RT summary of the critics is: “Field of Dreams is sentimental, but in the best way; it’s a mix of fairy tale, baseball, and family togetherness.”


Saying that Field of Dreams is “sentimental in the best way” is like saying that a work of propaganda really is swell the way it makes you want to go out and kill the Japs. The only difference between Field of Dreams and traditional propaganda is that, like Fifty Shades of Gray and Donald Trump, it wasn’t commissioned by the government but sprang fully formed from America’s forehead. Arguably this is much worse, because it’s easy to prove that, say, Disney’s Education for Death was trying to get you to fight in a war, but much harder to show just how deeply Field of Dreams panders to and excuses the most pandered-to and excused generation in American history. Instead everybody just smiles and nods.

I’m not even going to pretend there’s a significant readership here who hasn’t seen this movie, but we could all use a review of the particulars. Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella, an Iowa corn farmer who, like Noah from that Aronofsky movie, hears a mysterious voice telling him to build something. Then he has a vision of a baseball field where his corn currently is. When he builds the field, the historically disgraced Chicago White Sox emerge from the corn in ambiguously ghostly fashion and play ball, sending Ray on a cross-country journey to do all the other shit the voices in his head tell him to do. Normally stories like that end with sentences like “[a] search of the house and yard found eight more bodies and a human skull in a bucket,” but Field of Dreams ends with Ray summoning the ghost of his father so they can have a cathartic game of catch.

If that was all it was, Field of Dreams would just be a 90-minute version of those boringly sappy Twilight Zone episodes that resulted whenever Rod Serling got drunk and decided to lift America’s spirits, only about baseball instead of prizefighting or jazz. But the cultural context at work in Field of Dreams puts it in the metaphorical position of selling opium to the Lotus-Eaters. Let’s look at how the movie builds in those ideas, and how it hides them.

Born in 1955, Kevin Costner has not always been a Baby Boomer avatar; he’s spent too much of his career playing historical figures for that to be true. But he’s flirted with the role from time to time, most notably in Oliver Stone’s JFK, where his Jim Garrison embodied a kind of souring of the promise of the ’60s into paranoia and despair. (For a much darker and more perceptive look at Costner-as-Boomer than Field of Dreams, check out Mr. Brooks.) Overall his career has softened from the somewhat esoteric leading man of films like Waterworld and The Postman to the point where he became the kind of actor who appeals primarily to Dads. (Sorry, Dad.) This is why he was cast in the blandest, most “Dad Wave” Dad movie ever, Draft Day, and why Zack Snyder figured he was the kind of actor younger audiences would feel was their Dad when he cast Costner as Jonathan Kent in Man of Steel. What do these “dad” roles have in common? They’re all fantasies, whether the daydream is being the guy making the hard calls in football or having a father who says “You are my son” with all possible love in his voice and then later tragically sacrifices himself in a tornado to keep your superpowers a secret.

Like the AFI said, Field of Dreams is also a fantasy film; but unlike those much more harmless fantasies, this is the very worst kind: the kind that assures people who should not be assured that everything is okay that everything is okay. It turns Costner’s powers of Dadliness to evil purpose.

The first clues come in the part that nobody remembers because it’s the first five minutes and most people’s entire memories of this film comprise the portion after Ray builds the field because that’s when they flipped over to TNT from some other channel. The movie actually opens with a short montage of Ray explaining his entire life’s history–he grew up feeling ambivalent about his father, went to Berkeley and “majored in the Sixties,” married his wife, had a kid, and moved to her home state of Iowa to try and be a farmer. The overall thrust is that this man is the most normal man who’s ever lived, but the details are of a very specific kind of person, the kind of person who was around in the ’60s but was more swept up than sweeping. Or if you like, the kind of person who studies English, poorly, and decides that this qualifies him to grow corn.

This is very important: the film never even suggests that Ray knows how to be a farmer. He doesn’t talk about farming in any detail, is never shown farming, and is comically flustered whenever people suggest that he’s utterly ignorant of agricultural techniques. The only evidence in the film that Ray can farm is that there is existing corn for him to plow under in favor of the baseball diamond, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that corn had been there when he bought the place. Why is this important? Because Ray is that specific kind of person who thinks that they can be anything they want to be, without effort, training, or aptitude. The Boomers didn’t invent that, but they sure as hell popularized it. Ray’s story without the fantasy trappings is common as dirt for people his age–having missed out on his chance at greatness (or so he believes), Ray feels as though he sold his dreams and settled down for the kind of traditional family-and-job life he failed to fight against.

To be clear, this feeling is Ray’s problem. It’s clear by the way talks about them that the free spirit and protest movement of his young adult years were not for him, and there’s no shame in choosing to be a husband, a father and a farmer so long as you accept your choice. But Ray can’t let go of the idea that’s poisoned this country for decades, that he was meant in some way to be more special than that. That feeling is at the root of his failed relationship with his father, whom Ray believed betrayed his own dreams by becoming a father instead of a professional baseball player. In a broad historical/psychological sense, like Ray, Boomers rejected their parents, who went to war and otherwise did what was necessary for the next generation, and then grew up focused on satisfying themselves instead–a drive doomed to failure, given that our species is built to find lasting happiness in making sacrifices for our children. They’re like Ray, metaphorically running off across the country on a grand quest to follow their dreams while back home their family is starving and alone.

Along his journey, Ray is responsible for setting several subplots in motion; but the film is his story and it’s his story’s resolution that is fundamentally flawed. One of these subplots involves an old doctor, Archibald Graham (Burt Lancaster), who as a young man had one chance at playing major league baseball that never came to fruition. When Ray first meets Graham, he simply doesn’t understand what God (or whoever) is trying to tell him, what Graham himself repeatedly tries to tell him–that being a beloved small-town doctor is vastly more rewarding than being a ballplayer would have been. That, like Ray’s father, Graham didn’t fail his dreams but in an act of maturity, willingly set them aside to spend his life helping others. Ray is utterly blinded to this by his own narcissistic construction of “failed dream, failed life” that he can’t help but see in everyone around him–to Ray, they’re all mirrors held up to his own nagging sense of disappointment.

Note: I’m not detailing anything here that the film doesn’t know. This is an important part of Ray’s textual character arc, and the key insight comes at the climax, as is proper. Graham–reconstituted in ambiguous ghost fashion by the Plot God to come play baseball in Ray’s magic field–must leave that chance behind again a second time to use his doctor skills to save Ray’s daughter’s life. (This is a little silly, in that it doesn’t necessarily take an MD to realize a child can’t breathe and whack her on the back until she stops choking on a hot dog. But whatever.) In theory, witnessing an act of adult self-sacrifice (Graham literally goes from a child to a man at the point of transition) that has extra meaning to Ray (because it’s for his own daughter) should be what Ray needs to realize that his father’s life choices (as well as his own) have value and can be accepted without resentment. But although Costner seems to feel at least a little better about his own family, when Ray’s father’s ghost emerges to warn him about his uncle the King tentatively search for forgiveness, he comes as a young man in a baseball uniform. If Ray is to forgive his father, shouldn’t he forgive the version of his father that he knew and failed to respect, not the version Ray wished his father had been? Shouldn’t they bond over honest discussion, not a game of catch?

I don’t think this is necessarily the film deliberately betraying its own story. It’s the allegorical edifice going one story too high and collapsing. The problem with and odious success of this film is rooted in the same thing: baseball.

Ray has no accomplishments and no ambitions; his desires are imposed on him from outside, by a mysterious commanding voice and accompanying visions, and his chief character trait in terms of the plot is his faith in and obedience toward that mysterious entity. That’s your sign that, for all this movie’s coyness, we’re dealing with religion, and in this movie the religion is baseball.

Ray isn’t just a baseball fan, he’s a fanboy, obsessed with his father’s heroes, the Chicago Seven and Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta); one imagines a quasi-remake of this movie about a man who builds a movie set in his house so the Ghostbusters can come back and replay his favorite scenes. Ray’s primary reaction to seeing dead men playing ball outside his home is less “wow, this changes everything humanity knew about the afterlife” and more “wow, professional athletes!” The rest of the world seems to share his belief that baseball is somehow magical; the plot gets downright spiritual about it, and the film’s saccharine style (particularly James Horner’s seductively wistful score) drowns the viewer in warm feelings toward the sport. As fictional writer Terence Mann, James Earl Jones delivers a climactic monologue that can’t even be read in text form without hearing Jones’ deep, inviting voice:

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and that could be again.

Bullshit never smelled so sweet.

Mann’s story is essentially stage two in the audience’s developing relation to the film. In stage one, they see themselves in Ray’s ordinary and frustratingly humdrum life; with Mann, the film most clearly lays out the strawman case that, hey, it was everybody else who betrayed the 1960s by either believing too strongly (the nutballs Mann rages about who refuse to leave him alone) or selling out (the culture that first allowed for MLK and Robert Kennedy to be assassinated and then for their own corporatization). Having neither truly participated in nor turned against the counter-culture, Ray sits in an imaginary middle ground where it’s not his fault he never made a difference. The film’s solution to this complicated moral quandry is to have Kinsella’s smiling doormat of a wife (Amy Madigan, who is very effective at making a sexist cliche feel like she’s not that) get into a nasty argument with a woman who wants to ban one of Mann’s books from school, and then to have Ray try to kidnap Mann into joining his quest. As with Graham, Ray is a deluded meddler who thinks that a man who writes children’s software away from the public eye has lost his way and needs to return to the kind of writing that inspired the ’60s (according to the film, Mann literally coined the phrase “make love, not war”). And once again Ray has things exactly backwards–Mann’s software doesn’t benefit himself (no fame involved, as Mann is a recluse who programs from home) but does help the next generation, while his books spurred a revolution that ultimately failed. One clue as to why his writing didn’t work may be found in the fact that Ray and Annie, two hopeless squares who skipped protesting to move to a farm in Iowa, both consider Mann their favorite writer.

But as the quoted speech indicates, Mann does come with Ray, and, seduced by baseball nostalgia and intrigued by the spiritual mysteries at hand, reverses his opinions and regains his faith. When Mann admits he intends to go back to writing (with a book about his experience in whatever afterlife lies beyond the corn), Ray gets a very smug look on his face.

This brings us around to the fourth major plot thread. Field of Dreams is actually fairly realistic about how stupid Ray’s actions are in financial terms. He destroys most of his corn crop to build the field, and then instead of getting his family out of their jam, he runs off to chase his dumb voice’s instructions. The typical role of the mean-spirited banker who threatens to take Ray’s farm is actually played here by a kind-spirited banker (actually Annie’s brother Mark, played by Timothy Busfield, who I only recently realized was also CJ’s reporter boyfriend on The West Wing) who’s only trying to help Ray and is in fact that most rational human being in the movie. He sees Ray essentially going insane and uses his business to help Ray save his family from homelessness, and he’s only wrong because in this world there actually are ghosts in the cornfield. When the drama with Ray’s daughter happens, Mark is shocked out of his inability to see the players, and immediately comes around to Ray’s point of view.

So this climax is stage three of the audience’s movement through the film. To start with, we feel that Ray is unsatisfied because, like his father (and “Moonlight” Graham, and the banned White Sox players), he lost his chance to achieve something great; then we get Terence Mann’s story raising the possibility that the ’60s failed for a reason. Now, in the climax, Ray is proven correct just about everywhere, as Mann admits he needs to write inspirational works again, Mark realizes that Ray protecting and providing for his family is less important than ghost ballplayers, and Ray gets the wrong kind of rapprochement with his father. (Even Graham’s storyline suggests that, even if Graham doesn’t get to play ball forever, it’s an important piece of validation that he was good enough to have done so.) Every implicit critique of Ray and his generation that might have been teased out of the subtext via a smart ending is thrown overboard in favor of self-serving pablum about the importance of having, chasing, and regaining your dreams.

But the film doesn’t end with Ray, because the audience’s journey isn’t done. It ends with a long line of cars in the distance heading for Ray’s field. Mann describes us:

Ray, people will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come, Ray. […] People will most definitely come.

I can’t fault the truth value of this sentiment. People did come. They paid to see this movie, they enjoyed its easy nostalgia, they nominated it for awards and put it on lists and they look fondly on it now. The movie effectively predicted the gullibility of its audience, who would go for “reasons they can’t even fathom,” and come away feeling reassured, their assumptions unchallenged and their self-serving fictions reinforced. This is how Field of Dreams sees you: one member of a mindless horde, lining up to fork over your cash for a fantasy.

Cinema is a tool like any other, and it can be used for good or for ill. Like any art, it can entertain and distract us, or it can illuminate us. Some of the best movies do both, wrapping truth in an involving fiction; but some of the worst, most immoral films do the exact opposite, using a pleasant story to sugarcoat a lie. Field of Dreams succeeds handily at being pleasant, at drumming up nostalgia for a simpler time by evoking a beloved sport. But at its heart is an idea that isn’t true–whether or not you believe in religion, there is no God like this, who directs us to neglect our families, shanghai reclusive old writers and build paeans to shoeless secular Jesus with our life savings, and who then makes everything all right in the end. Field of Dreams says to a particular subset of people with a particular problem–Ray’s problem, that his life is unsatisfying and he missed his chance at glory–that they’re absolutely right, and that the solution is to narcissistically chase that lost glory until the fervency of your faith reverses all your miseries. If Field of Dreams didn’t use baseball as a proxy for religion (and purpose, and the idealism of the ’60s, and so on), it might have been able to get directly at the problems it’s talking about, and made a real difference in peoples’ lives by showing that accepting who you’ve become is an important part of growing up. Instead, with every shot and scene and line of its story, this film seeks to lull you into sweet sleep. Spit out your Lotus, friends, and the next time Field of Dreams shows up on cable, watch something else.