28 April 2017

The List: Field of Dreams

Baseball and Magic go hand in hand with me. The two blend into a feeling that washes over me at even the thought of being at a ball game. It's a romantic thing within me and in and of itself. It is pastoral, rejuvenating, just as the spring of each year brings it alongside sun and rain and the resulting green of the grass. These are sentiments usually attributed to Walt Whitman in his days with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the mid-19th Century, baseball still called base ball and not yet an organized sport:
"I see great things in base ball. It's our game--the American game. It will take people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us." (1847)
Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams feels like that. It even pointedly talks like that. Its characters aren't worried with wins and losses and numbers and statistics. But memories and sensations and pain and longing for redemption, second chances. It knows that baseball is those things too. Consider it the anti-Moneyball. Though, like Moneyball, it lies in a realm of baseball movies that aren't really sports movies. Often drawing comparisons to the work of director Frank Capra what with with its everyman protagonist's leaps of faith as well as its affecting use of magical realism, well... Consider it the best baseball story there is. I do.

The plot comes down to this:  Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is a rookie farmer working the corn fields of Iowa alongside his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan), and their daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffman). He hears a mysterious voice one evening as he walks the rows of corn, a voice that ultimately inspires him to plow under his corn and build a baseball diamond with the promise that Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) will come to play and even become pathway to a bigger journey, one involving a retired, reclusive writer from the 1960s named Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones); a former ballplayer (Burt Lancaster), who got only a tiny glimpse at the major leagues; and perhaps even Ray's own father, who Ray regrets not connecting with as a young man.

It is a masterwork of storytelling, perfected by a blend of moving image and sound unmatched in my experience. But at its core, Field of Dreams is a story of good people and the power of faith and redemption. It is a story about fathers and sons, fathers more than anything, and in a year in which I lost both my father and his father, the two men who taught me most about this great game of ball, well, its all the more meaningful.

It's my favorite movie of all-time. It's the start of baseball season. I add, in honor of this glorious weather that my father and my grandfather would so love, the 1989 fantasy baseball drama film, Field of Dreams to The List.

Part 1: "If you build it, he will come." 

"I'm 36 years old. I love my family. I love baseball. And I'm about to become a farmer. But until I heard the voice, I'd never done a crazy thing in my entire life." - Ray
The opening voiceover provides the set-up, a family history, mostly a comical telling of the past of Ray Kinsella, spoken himself, and dealing with the at-odds relationship he had with his father, John Kinsella (Dwier Brown). I love the happiness that ends the set up, and how it is immediately followed by this sequence of shots:

The sound of the wind rustling the tops of the corn. The magic hour cinematography. A small jingle, the sound of a sprinkling of magic dust in the sound design, the score. It is amazing to me how this scene will be mirrored later, at the very end, but with a such a starkly different tone. The opening is almost like a thriller, one of my students compared it to Signs.

"I never forgave him for getting old." - Ray
Intimacy in a marriage presented in such a loving, wholesome way. What a concept. Amy Madigan's sympathetic work as Annie is noteworthy as it makes her so much more than just a throwaway wife character. She empathizes with her husband, understands him. Such smart writing in this little scene. It could just as easily have become a sob story about a guy with "Daddy Issues," instead it becomes a shared journey between a man and his wife, two equals madly in love even after 15 years of marriage. She is what really gets him to take that leap and build that field.

"What's threw?" - Karin
The montage of building the baseball field. Ray explaining to his young daughter the impact of Shoeless Joe Jackson on baseball and his eventual life-long suspension as part of the famed group of players from the 1919 White Sox (or "Black Sox") accused of "throwing" the World Series for money. Her questions are so sweet. Ray is a good father.

"Getting thrown out of baseball was like having part of me amputated...I'd wake up in the night with the smell of the ballpark in my nose, the coolness of the grass on my feet. The thrill of the grass." - Shoeless Joe Jackson
One of those moments....those romantic, Walt Whitman, baseball is beautiful moments. Shoeless Joe lives in an Iowa cornfield. He is in his prime. He gets to play ball again. 

Part 2: "Ease His Pain"

"Man, I did love this game. Played for food money. It was a game. The sounds, the smells. Ever hold a ball or a glove to your face?...I would've played for nothin'." - Shoeless Joe
Ray Liotta is perfectly cast here in a small role. Serious if a bit unsure of what to thing. His first two moments of dialogue, more monologue actually, coming in between a session of fielding practice and a session of batting practice. We sense the redemptive quality of the field immediately in this moment. Joe is being given his second chance. Ray is finally vindicated in his choice to build the field.  They will end their first meeting like this: 

Joe: Is this Heaven? 
Ray: No. It's Iowa. 

"How could you plow under your major crop?"
In another Capra-esque move, there's the big bad man from the bank threatening to foreclose on the farm, the reality setting in, nicely placed just after the recent magical night of vindication in faith. Really, this big, bad bank man is less big and bad and more just an adult, Ray's brother-in-law, Mark (Timothy Busfield), in fact, warning him that losing that much crop to the ball field could be bad news for the farm.

"Terrence Mann was a warm and gentle voice of reason during a time of great madness." - Annie
The PTO meeting is a perfect (and hilarious) way to set up the brilliant second act, which will take Ray on a journey across the country and back in search of his favorite writer from the 60s, the reclusive, bitter Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones). The hicks want to ban his books. The dreamers like us (and Ray and Annie) need them to live. Madigan's takedown of old Beulah is priceless. 

"It means we're going to Minnesota to find Moonlight Graham." - Terrence Mann
This shot always got to me. That jingle again on the soundtrack. Ray's u-turn halted by Terry, who not only went to Fenway Park with Ray but saw the same vision, heard the same voice, had the same dream. The connection is felt in that jingle and this shot and now Terry is along for the ride. 

Part 3: "Go The Distance"

"To feel the tingle in your arm as you connect with the ball...that's my wish, Ray Kinsella. Is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true? I don't know." - Doc Graham
Burt Lancaster's work as the ballplayer who never was, Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, is outstanding. And his is the anchor of the redemption aspect of the story. So he only played one half inning of one game as a big leaguer. He became the most respected man in his town anyway, the town doctor. He represents the heartache of Baseball. And the joy of Life. 

"I was 17. Son-of-a-bitch died before I could take it back." - Ray
The conversation in the car between Ray and Terry is particularly poignant. We finally get to hear the whole story of Ray's falling out with his father as a teenager. Not only that though. This scene bridges the gap between what's magical and what's real. They talk about the game of Baseball in Ray's dad's youth as a ballplayer of that era, Young Archie Graham, sleeps in the back of the van.  

"Hey, rookie! You were good." - Shoeless Joe
The feels when Moonlight gets his one major league at bat, only to prove that his true calling was being "Doc" not "Moonlight." Life is funny (and beautiful) that way. The camera move here, that steady zoom from that low angle mixed with that swell of James Horner's absolutely perfect score. Ugh! That is how you make grown men cry.

Part 4: "People will come, Ray." 

"The one constant through all the years has been baseball." - Terry
The best monologue in movie history. End of discussion. Seriously though. How the players stop playing and move in slowly, so they can hear. We hear him loud and clear, the most commanding of screen presences that is James Earl Jones. We also hear the crickets in the hour just before dusk, the wind blowing across the corn, the rustle of the grass under the players' shoes. 

"Maybe this is heaven." 
I won't spoil anything here. I will only say that there is nothing like the first time you watch this and finally realize what this movie is actually about, what the big reveal is, what the voice meant when he spoke to Ray, well...

And then I cry. The end.  

About The List

The List is a series of essays in quotes and screen caps covering re-watches of my all-time favorite movies. It is named after an actual list I once made of all the movies I wanted to show my girlfriend (now wife) when we first started dating. It is now an ever-growing list of movies we've both seen and love and that I, particularly, find important enough to recommend as essential viewing for any movie lover.

More Movies from The List


  1. It is about as perfect as a movie can get. I think omst people remember that speech from James Earl Jones at the end, the one you call the best monologue in movie history, and it is something of beauty. But to me, there is no moment of this film that so captures me as Burt Lancaster in his doctor's office talking about seeing a sky so blue you have to squint at it and turning a double into a triple. In a storied career with dozens of great roles and great performances, those moments to me sum up Lancaster are his greatest and most perfect.

    1. It's hard to argue with your point about Lancaster and his work here. Truly great!

  2. Glad to see you back with such a detailed post!

    Love this film and its universal themes. You don't have to be a baseball fan, I'm only a moderate one-meaning if I can go to a game I will but otherwise I'm indifferent, to enjoy the film's story. Costner's placidly recessive persona in this case is well suited to his role since he's the audience's conduit to the story, his personality never really intrudes on our perspective.

    Amy Madigan is ideal for her role as well, she's not a glamorous star dressing down to be a farm wife like Meg Ryan or Jessica Lange would have been but a earthy, spunky woman who belongs where she is. Glad you mentioned her head to head at the school meeting that injected much needed humor in the film while still moving the plot forward.

    I can't add anything to what you said about JEJ-he's perfect and the film would be diminished without him as Terence Mann. But I'll join in the praise for Burt Lancaster, this is one of his very best performances. I've always been a fan but Doc Graham is light years away from his prime years signature brashness, the years of course had softened him but he could still come across that way here he subsumes all that and in his few minutes on screen he creates a fascinating, touching and deeply moving character that you can believe would be a catalyst for the story. His role is small but integral if you don't like him and believe in his choice one of the most crucial moments of the film would fall flat. He makes sure that doesn't happen.

    All that quality work doesn't happen in a vacuum though, the direction is relaxed but doesn't linger so the film moves along with no scene that last too long to break the spell. Then lastly when it counts the most-on the ball field, when Ray meets Doc on a misty rain swept street-the cinematography is just beautiful and the music evocative.

    1. Lancaster really is something else here. I agree. This movie really is special. There is almost nothing to compare it to, and I love how you mention the way it moves. Everything is played out perfectly, not a beat too fast or slow. And the music (and sound design in general) is so great.

  3. Yay! You're back! And what a beautiful post. You are a wonderful writer.

  4. Finally! You have returned!

    Excellent post. I haven't watched this movie in a long time, but I do love this movie. James Earl Jones's monologue is great, but it's not even the best of the film. The best monologue of the film is when Burt Lancaster tells Kevin Costner about how it was to play baseball. I get chills every single time during that scene.

    (Both of those monologues are some of the best in film history, but there are a few others that are better: Paul Schneider's monologue about the ducks in All the Real Girls; Robin Williams's monlogue about life in Good Will Hunting; Dennis Hopper's Sicilian monologue in True Romance; & Gregory Peck's courtroom monologue in To Kill a Mockingbird. There are probably a few more film monologues that are excellent, but those are a few that I could remember off the top of my head).

    And that ending always gets me. This is one of the few films that I will always cry at.

    1. And, to go back to the monologues that are better, a monologue that I almost forgot about: Ethan Hawke's monologue in the car in Before Sunset. That was amazing. In my opinion, that's the best monologue in film history.

    2. I love all the ones you listed. Good stuff!

  5. Great run down of the film. It's one I admit I watch but don't really think about.

    1. So worth a re-visit if you get the chance. Sorry it took me the better part of a fucking year to reply to your comment.