Film: "Field of Dreams"
Stars: Kevin Costner, Amy Madigan, James Earl Jones and
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
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.