Film: "Field of Dreams"

Stars: Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones and

Burt Lancaster

Theaters: Southroads and Eton Square theaters

Rating: PG (mild language)

Quality:5 STARS (on a scale of zero to five stars)

It's easy to think of "Field of Dreams" as a kind of "Close

Encounters of the Baseball Kind."

Here's a movie of such spiritual earnestness, of such gentle

goodness, that it achieves a kind of cosmic wave of good

feelings, much as did "Close Encounters of the Third Kind,"

Steven Spielberg's paean to the brotherhood of the universe.

Writer-director Phil Alden Robinson's film presents baseball

as a kind of national altar at which redemption of lost

dreams and reconciliation of the generations can be wrought.

The story, based on W.P. Kinsella's grand novel "Shoeless

Joe," is set in an Iowa cornfield where a struggling young

farmer is driven to build a baseball diamond because he

has heard a mysterious voice promise, "If you build it,

he will come."

"He" turns out to be Shoeless Joe Jackson, the great outfielder

who was wrongly banished from baseball for life following

the 1919 Chicago "Black Sox" scandal.

Kinsella's novel is a symbolic fable about a child of the

'60s trying to find his way back into his late father's

good graces through the common ground of baseball.

Robinson ("In the Mood") translates the book to film with

a delicate sense of holding on to the story's better themes.

And so his movie is about loving your parents, chasing bravely

after your wildest dreams, and finding and accepting your past.

The farmer, Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), is an ex-campus

radical and city-dweller who came to Iowa to settle into

farming with his college-sweetheart wife, Annie (Amy Madigan),

and his young daughter, Karin (Gaby Hoffman).

Costner plays Ray as a solid, no-nonsense guy nearing middle

age, whose biggest regret is that he parted with his father

on bad terms and never settled the dispute before the old man died.

Costner's easy, likable reading of the role is perfectly

tuned. And Robinson adds a deft brush stroke to the characterization

early on when he has Ray's daughter watching Jimmy Stewart

on TV in a scene from "Harvey." In his younger days, Stewart

would have been perfect for the role of Ray, and Costner

could easily play Elwood P. Dowd in a remake of "Harvey."

After the voice beckons, Ray plows under his crops and spends

the family's savings building the baseball field, setting

himself up for foreclosure. Through it all, as Ray sits

on the long Iowa afternoons waiting for Shoeless Joe to

appear, his wife stands behind him with loving, but puzzled,

patience. Madigan's performance here is an appealing, salty

mixture of dutiful Midwestern wife and '60s flower child.

When Joe finally does appear like a ghost through the mist-shrouded

cornstocks, Ray's quest is still not completed.

Soon, he's off on a cross-country odyssy in search of a

missing writer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and

darling of the '60s, Terrance Mann (James Earl Jones). In

Kinsella's book, this character was based on that elusive

catcher in the rye, J.D. Salinger. But Robinson abandoned

that characterization and recast the part to suit Jones.

It was a wise cinematic choice. Jones brings a larger-than-life,

mythic quality to the story that is a counterpoint to Costner's

wide-eyed, Everyman presence.

Burt Lancaster is equally majestic in the Norman Rockwell-like

role of the small-town doctor, "Moonlight" Graham, a former

ballplayer who played only one-half inning in the big leagues

and never got to bat.

The film's climax, as Ray and his family, Terrance Mann,

and a younger "Moonlight" Graham gather at the ball park

with a team of ghostly greats is finely understated, but

deeply moving.

If this film has a weakness, it's in Robinson's failure

to ground the fantasy in a stronger sense of reality (as

Frank Capra did with his small town in "It's a Wonderful

Life"). But that's a small problem.

Ultimately, "Field of Dreams" is like most dreams. If

you want to believe it, you will; if you don't, you won't.

But it's hard to imagine a cynicism so hardened that it

won't crumble at the sight of a lush green baseball field

nestled into an Iowa cornfield and at this movie's final

inspiring scene of youth and innocence recaptured.