Why Field of Dreams Gets Me Every Time

1989's Field Of Dreams might just be Kevin Costner's finest hour. So why does the film still manage to hit so hard?

“We just don’t recognise life’s most significant moments while they’re happening. Back then I thought, ‘well there’ll be other days’. I didn’t realise that that was the only day.”

It’s a useful piece of advice that’s given to writers, that you need to put something on the line if you want a piece to really work. That you need to put some, and ideally a lot, of yourself into it.

Brace yourselves, I’m afraid. I make no promises that the quality of what you’re about to read is much cop. But I can tell you that Field Of Dreams is an immensely important and rich film to me, one that hits me, and hits me hard every time I watch it. I think that it reinforces too that a lot of the time, what you bring to a movie is what makes it particularly special to you. And so that’s what I’m going to talk about.

I first tried to wrap my head around explaining why Field Of Dreams – a film, on the surface, about a primarily-American sport played thousands of miles away from my home – became one of my favourites when I counted down the top 25 Kevin Costner films. I struggled to do so then, hence me coming back around for another go. For it is my favourite Kevin Costner film. And it’s one of my favourite films full stop. So I’m going to try and explain why. Again.

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Spoilers lie ahead.

On the first DVD release of Field Of Dreams, you’ll find one of the very best making-of documentaries for a contemporary film that I’ve seen (it’s since turned up on Blu-ray, too. I don’t think it’s, er, on my HD DVD copy). It told the story of how writer-director Phil Alden Robinson skilfully captured W P Kinsella’s book, Shoeless Joe, and brought it to the screen. As with his next film, Sneakers, it took him a long time to do so, with Robinson first suggesting the adaptation in 1981, eight years prior to the film’s eventual release.

Shoeless Joe was the working title of the movie, and Kevin Costner made it went his star was on the rise, but not quite in the stratosphere (Dances With Wolves was two films away). At this point in time, he’d just done Bull Durham (which hadn’t at that point been released), and thus there was some doubt that he’d commit to another baseball movie straight away.

But Costner saw something in the script, reportedly saying that he thought the movie could be “this generation’s It’s A Wonderful Life.” That said, he didn’t have much time to fit the movie in, as he was due on the set of Tony Scott’s Revenge in August 1988, and cameras didn’t start rolling on Field Of Dreams until the end of May ’88. Given the challenges of growing crops, and getting the exteriors right, this was no small hurdle that the filmmakers had to tackle.

That said, I don’t want to dig too much into the behind the scenes production for this piece, not least because the aforementioned documentary does the job amazingly well. Still, it’s interesting to note that Robinson didn’t have a happy time on the movie. He clearly knew he was onto something special, and has admitted to feeling the pressure of expectation of that. He’s stepped behind the camera so few times, and I wonder if that’s a reason. It’s a real pity either way, as he’s an unfussy director, and a very natural storyteller.

Take the two particualar scenes in Field Of Dreams where he grounds his camera, and makes his actors move in and out of shot as examples. The first is one of the key ones. Costner’s Ray Kinsella, in his field, hearing ‘the voice’ for the first time. It’s simple, hugely effective, and works. He repeats the trick in a small but equally strong scene in the Kinsella’s kitchen, this time with both Costner and Amy Madigan zipping around, whilst our view stays still.

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Let’s jump to the end too, the majestic, magical moment where we see the long line of cars, people on their pilgrimage to Iowa. It’s a simple pull up of the camera, before slowly moving to a wider shot. No quick cuts, a simple absorbing of what’s going on (fact fans: most of the cars aren’t moving, just blinking their headlights. But I’ve no urge to dig deeper and destroy the film’s magic). Not that I can usually see that bit. The tears have been filling my eyes for a good five minutes by that point, if not more.

Which is where I come in.

“Is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?”

I was 15 when I first saw Field Of Dreams. A friend and I used to go to the video shop over from his house, and rent a movie. Nothing more fancy than that. I picked Field Of Dreams, for reasons I can’t really recall. I think I must have seen a review of it somewhere, or an advert in one of those free magazines that video shops used to give out. That, or we didn’t look old enough for RoboCop. And I sat through it for 100-odd minutes, genially enjoying the film.

Then the ending happened. As I was sat watching in company, I did my damnedest to hide what that ending did to me, but it pretty much broke me on the spot.

I never saw it coming.

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And ultimately, it’s one simple line that’s the killer. “You want to have a catch?” I read only last year that when Costner saw the script for the first time, he argued that the whole story came down to those six words. I’ve argued/bored people before that there’s never been a big movie star with such a knack for choosing great projects as Costner, and that, for me, is an example of his tentacles at work. I’ll come back to that point later, though.

So then. I wasn’t getting on with my dad when I was 15. I know this is a fairly predictable story – and I’m very keenly aware that I’m very lucky, and people have things a lot worse than I did – but it speaks to why Field of Dreams became so special for me personally.

My dad is, genuinely, a great man, who I’m now very close to, and love immensely. He’s a far better human being than me, but like most teenagers, I just couldn’t see eye to eye with him. Nor him with me. And this went on for many years longer than it should of. It didn’t help I guess that I was being bullied at school, nor that I was struggling really to find much to enjoy. At that stage in my life, I was a bit lost, and my ups and downs with my dad were a part of that.

To be clear, there were a few moments in the midst of those years where we did get on. There’s a lovely exchange in 1991’s City Slickers, where Daniel Stern’s Phil says “when I was about 18 and my dad and I couldn’t communicate about anything at all, we could still talk about baseball.” There’s something in that, I think. But I was drifting a long way from my father at one point, and like many teenagers, couldn’t quite understand why. Nor was I trying too hard to find out.

To learn, then, that Field Of Dreams was, ultimately, about the lengths a man would go to in order to reconnect with his father? That was and is emotionally devastating to me. In a good way. If you really want to do the psychoanalysis on me here, one of my favourite books is Roald Dahl’s Danny The Champion Of The World. Help yourself. Rest assured that if you’re the kind of person who likes to post nasty comments on internet articles, every one of them will sting to some degree this time.

“Could you believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father?”

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Sometimes, goes the argument, you need to watch and like a film a first time, so you can love it every other time you watch it. That sums Field Of Dreams up for me, really.

You’d think too that the ending, the “people will come” speech, and the game of catch at the end, would have less effect each time I watch the film. As it turns out, quite the contrary. I start welling up earlier, because now, I know it’s coming. In many ways, that makes it even worse for me. If my children are in the room when that scene comes on, I have to hold them tight. The film’s lost not one iota of its grip on me after all these years.

That the ending works, and holds such power, though, is testament to the foundations that Phil Alden Robinson builds his film on. Look at the opening 20-25 minutes or so of Back To The Future. There, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale get across a lot of information, often quite densely. They set what you need to know in place (and in that case, there’s an awful lot of it), and take time to introduce rounded characters, and the motivations for each of them. Thus, by the time you get to the ending, you’re willing to take any leap of faith the movie asks you to do.

Field Of Dreams, for my money, is just as good an example. The film rests on whether you buy a story of ghost baseball players coming back, to experience what they thought had been lost, and that life had cruelly taken away from then. Robinson sprinkles scepticism – but not cynicism – therefore throughout his characters, and each deals with it in different ways.

Ray, clearly, wants to believe. He wants to follow this. By the time we hear the voice, we’ve already been told that he drifted from his father, that his dad raised him alone, but had him late in his life. “I never forgave him for getting old”, Ray says to his wife, Annie, early in the film, just another example of the regret and loss he’s not come to terms with.

Thus, Ray builds his field because he wants to believe. His dad didn’t follow his dreams, although we know that that’s because he brought up his son alone. For Ray, if he doesn’t build the field, he’s his father. And that’s the thing that scares him more than having his photo taken by gawping neighbours as he destroys the crop that’d keep him financially afloat.

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“What if the voice calls while you’re gone?” “Take a message.”

I love Amy Madigan’s Annie in the midst of all of this too, and I love that the film doesn’t pigeonhole her as ‘the sensible wife.’ Movies have a horrible habit of doing that. Madigan though gets the wonderful scene where she rallies against the banning of books, exquisitely flooring her opponent with the line “I think you had two 50s and moved right into the 70s.” And she’s a crucial character.

For perhaps the biggest leap the film has to take is to buy that Annie would go along with the decision to build the baseball field in the first place. I’d have hated to have written that scene.

Robinson, though, makes it seem effortless, courtesy of human beings talking about what matters to them. Ray, chatting quietly about his father. “The man never did one spontaneous thing in all the years I knew him”, says Ray, admitting he’s afraid of the same thing happening to me. “Something tells me this may be my last chance to do something about it”. We thus get a couple, clearly in love, following a dream that makes no sense.

It’s important, I think, to recognise that there’s no foe or antagonist at all in Field Of Dreams (perhaps with the exception, briefly, of Beulah in the book banning debate). As I said earlier, there’s no cynicism here. The closest we get is Annie’s brother, Mark, played by Timothy Busfield. He’s the one trying to save the farm for Annie and Ray, when the financial pressures build up. He’s holding off his partners who want to foreclose. But his actions are utterly understandable: he thinks his sister has made a very bad, intangible decision. He’s torn between wanting to buy the land, and wanting to protect his family.

Meanwhile, the character of Terrence Mann, played by James Earl Jones in the film, was originally J D Salinger in Kinsella’ novel. Salinger threatened legal action against the movie if they used his name, hence the change. It worked out very well. Some of the finest comedy moments in Field Of Dreams come with the sparkling interaction between Costner and Earl Jones (“want a cup of coffee? Some cookies?”), and as Mann notes in the film, his reason for arriving in Iowa is the last but one to be resolved. And yet it all joins up.

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“This is my most special place in all the world, Ray. Once a place touches you like this, the wind nevers blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child”

The film too finds time for a final screen performance from the late, great Burt Lancaster as ‘Moonlight’ Graham, a man who had seemingly lost his dream, but had no regrets in the end about doing so. “Son,” he says to Ray, “if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.”

How easy would it have been for the film to put just one angle on what a dream is? It’s often said that the best sports films aren’t about sport, and here, the message couldn’t be clearer. The loss would be if Graham had gone on to be a baseball star. That he would never have been a doctor, and touched so many lives. In this case, too, it makes it no less moving when the young ‘Moonlight’ Graham steps off the baseball field to save Karin’s life at the end of the film. And then slowly walks away to see his beloved Alicia again, with the bare minimum of fuss.

Then there’s Shoeless Joe Jackson himself, Mr Ray Liotta. The original plan here was to cast an older actor, but Robinson saw a “sense of danger” in Liotta – this was before Goodfellas – that fitted the character.

The first meeting between Kinsella and Jackson is mainly non-verbal, further evidence of Robinson’s unfussy style. Costner’s bumbling awkwardness is lovely here, meeting a man at the heart of his final row with his father, who’s also something of an idol. And him hitting the ball to Shoeless Joe has the nervousness that would be akin to me telling Kevin Costner how to direct a western.

Liotta pitches (ROFL etc) his performance pretty much perfectly. His mournful “man, I did love this game” speech may be the standout (in fact, that whole, quiet, speech: “I’d play for nothing”), but how about the moment where young Karin asks him if he’s a ghost. “What do you think?” he asks. When she says he looks real, it’s a simple “well then I guess I’m real.” No more questions needed.

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It’s ironic I guess that I’m writing about Field Of Dreams at the back end of a summer blockbuster season that seen film after film trying to explain pretty much everything. Field Of Dreams doesn’t. It trusts its audience to fill in the blanks. Cross the line on the field to the farm, and it’s over. Everyone knows they’re dead (there’s a wonderful moment where one of the ball players says “I’m melting” as he walks through the cornfield). As Groundhog Day would further prove, not everything in the movies needs a Powerpoint presentation to explain it. After all, Back To The Future never told me how a flux capacitor would actually work, I just know that it’s there and it does. That’ll do me.

Also: Field Of Dreams offers a superb argument for containing the stakes of a movie. The Goonies was, ultimately, about a bunch of friends wanting to save a home. Back To The Future? Well, Marty just wanted to keep his mum and dad together. Field Of Dreams, for all its fantasy elements? A man just wanted the chance to put things right with his father. And it matters more than an number of characters battling to save the planet.

“Maybe this is heaven”

There are two further people I have to talk about before I sign off: James Horner and Kevin Costner. Let’s take them in turn.

The loss of James Horner earlier this year, you don’t need me to tell you, was an absolute tragedy. Aged just 61, Horner was still writing music, and surely have many, many tremendous film scores ahead of him. His core score for Field Of Dreams is one of my very favourites. The penultimate track on the CD (which I had to import. Kids today won’t get that), The Place Where Dreams Come True, is one of my ten favourite pieces of film music. Horner did ‘quiet’ as well as any modern film composer, and whilst there are so many candidates for his finest work, this is the piece of music I’ll keep coming back to for the rest of my life. Rest in peace, Mr Horner.

Regular readers of this site may well have suffered my Kevin Costner articles before. They’re getting longer than his films these days. But I rank his performance in Field Of Dreams alongside Tin Cups Roy McAvoy as perhaps Costner’s most believable, accessible and warm.

Furthermore: who else at the heart of the film could really make it work? Costner has said more recently that he makes very American films, but there’s a worldwide everyman quality here, that means you can’t help but root for a man who’s lived in some kind of fear, and is putting himself entirely on the line.

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I’ve talked before – even in this piece – about the boldness of some of Costner’s choices over his career, but Field Of Dreams cements to me that he’s always had something that many movie stars haven’t: an eye for an outstanding script, coupled with a willingness to commit to it. Not all of his movies have worked, but there are few I’ve got to the end of, and not felt that at least it was trying something. In this case, the meeting of his father at the end of the film is some of the best acting work he’s ever done. It’s not flashy. It’s not overly sentimental. It’s – as pretentious as I’m making this sound – human. Just wonderfully human.

Of course, at the sight of his father, the film that implies heavily – through Shoeless Joe – that the voice that’s guided him through the story was his own. There’s inevitably debate about this, but I always loved how Roger Ebert read the ending of the superb Being There: “a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more”. I like to think that way of Field Of Dreams. It makes sense that it all comes from Ray.

Going back to Costner, then, “maybe this is heaven”, he shrugs. And then the killer moment. Where he stops calling his father John, and manages, through choked back emotions, to shout out “dad”. Other actors would perhaps play it as their Oscar clip. Costner plays it as the quiet realisation of the story, whilst Horner’s outstanding score swirls. Then Robinson pulls back his camera, and then we see the queue of traffic.

Oh god, I’m going to cry again.

The years after Field Of Dreams‘ release saw its reputation quickly grow. Within a year or two, people were recreating games of 1919 baseball on the diamond that still resides in the Iowa cornfields. It remains a popular tourist attraction too, attracting thousands of visitors a year. They put on baseball games there too, and families, according to the accounts I’ve read, just go to throw a ball around.

But the movie knew that.

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“People will come, Ray”, goes the quote. “They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom”, said James Earl Jones’ Terence Mann in one of the most memorable passages from the film.

Honestly? I’d jump on a plane tomorrow. I’d pass over my money without evening thinking about it, to find the peace I sometimes lack. To try and remind myself of all that once was good and it could be again.

And you know what? I’d take my dad.