Who Doesn’t Cry During ‘Field of Dreams’?


The Boys of Summer are back on the baseball diamond and the days are warming up in New England. What better time is there to put on the 1989 magical realist classic Field of Dreams (dir. Phil Alden Robinson), probably one of the few movies that every red-blooded American man must admit leaves them crying like babies by the time of its heart-warming conclusion.(*) Tom Hanks famously exclaimed, “There’s no crying in baseball!” Kevin Costner replied, “Not so fast!” (Yes, A League of Their Own was released three years later, but this movie is about time traveling so…)

Ray Kinsella (Costner) and his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) are two former ’60s radicals that have only been slightly domesticated by purchasing a farm in Iowa. One evening, while weeding the corn field, Ray begins hearing a mystical voice telling him, “If you build it, he will come.” It might be merely an acid flashback, but either way this leads Ray to build a baseball diamond.

Long-dead players like Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta, star of the great Martin Scorcese film Goodfellas) begin showing up to play ball. Kinsella is sent to Boston to pick up the Salinger-esque Black Power author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones in a show-stealing performance), and the Yuppie real estate slime ball brother-in-law Mark (Timothy Busfield) plots to foreclose on the distressed mortgage that the field sits upon.

Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, far superior to Field of Dreams. Ironically, Goodfellas was famously robbed of the Best Picture at the 1991 Oscars. The award went to another Costner shitshow, Dances With Wolves. Closed Captioning provided by Ken Silverstein. Fair Use.

In the 1930’s and ‘40s, due to a combination of political convenience, necessity, and the overpowering charm of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, stage and screen artists of various political tendencies found themselves in a de facto Popular Front coalition with progressives and radicals, including an agrarian populist element with antecedents dating back to the Gilded Age that had been epitomized by L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. Frank Capra, one of these luminaries, fused a strand of anti-corporate agitation with a down-home pathos that glorified the simple living of the everyday American. At its best, this movement was a love letter to our society’s inclination towards self-improvement. At its worst, these pictures became overly-saccharine celluloid with astonishing blind spots about racial and sex/gender inequalities, later derided as “Capra-corn.”

Field of Dreams is a loving homage to Capra, ergo the corn reference, a left jab in the midst of the Reaganite onslaught. The film is littered with nostalgic nods to the Popular Front ethos while gently remedying the gaps in those politics. Costner’s character sports a T-shirt at one point for the African National Congress, a bold move for a period when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned and the African National Congress was designated by the US government as a terrorist organization. Jones revered Paul Robeson as an elder statesman and his performance seems to channel The Tallest Tree.

After a previous 30 years of clunky Marxist engagement with the polysyllabic legacies of Freud and Lacan regarding marriage, the script offers a refreshingly uncomplicated nuclear family. It inverts the typical patriarchy, including a hilarious scene of the housewife serving up a hearty takedown of censorious proto-fascistic Culture Warriors.

Yet at its core, it remains a motion picture about something more important than baseball. The surprise ending is that the entire picture was actually about the love and loss children feel for their fathers and the simplicity of playing a game of catch with your dad. Ray’s epic journey is not building the baseball diamond, instead it is forgiving himself for a very typical gesture, intentionally hurting the patriarch as a gesture of alienation in order to assert a sense of independent adulthood. This is the true nature of magical realism, using elements of fantasy and science fiction in ways that explore the human condition and our common struggles in life’s journey.

This spring, after several years of cold turkey, I gave into temptation and began to follow the goddamned Boston Red Sox again, which every New Englander understands as a secularized Stations of the Cross ceremony. Field of Dreams, like a Catholic breviary, offers prayers of reconciliation and remembrance for the dead in a healing ceremony. As we begin to survey the last five years of calamity and loss, it might be the movie we need in order to go back and play ball.

(*) Editor’s note, KS: I love baseball. I hated Field of Dreams. I despise Kevin Costner, never worse than in Dances With Wolves, but I hated him in Fields of Dreams, too. I cry at movies, like the end of Pan’s Labyrinth. I did not cry during Field of Dreams, I vomited. However, after reading Andrew’s story I realize that my entire reaction to the film is based on my visceral hatred of Costner. I don’t really remember the movie and, if Andrew’s interpretation is correct, I didn’t understand it in the slightest. But it still sucks because Costner is in it.

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