Saturday, April 12, 2014

25 Years Ago This Month: Field of Dreams Movie Review

It’s amazing how, not even being a fan of baseball, I can still be moved by the nostalgia that drips off Field of Dreams. I hadn’t watched it since I was a kid, and I remembered it as being sort of overly sentimental and hackneyed, but as an adult, as a grown man who has learned to appreciate America and history and our collective cultural consciousness, Phil Alden Robinson’s adaptation of W.P. Kinsella’s fantasy novel stands out as a modern cinema classic.

The whole thing functions on a level that assumes two core audience demographics: an older generation that recalls the post World War I period of innocence when America’s pastime grew to enormous levels of popularity; and the next generation who came of age in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement and sit-ins and protests against the Vietnam War. It is about the union of those two, seemingly warring, generations through the use of a simple game that recalls a period of innocence that by the late 80s (or 70s when Kinsella wrote his novel) seemed forever lost. The 1980s culture of greed, expansion, military buildup, morass of low morals was ripe for a popular Hollywood movie that could help us remember what once was good. It also made it okay for men to cry at the movies.

The peace, love, and understanding 60s which serve as the underlying bedrock ethos of Field of Dreams, were not that far removed from 1989. Woodstock was only twenty years prior. When I think back twenty years from where I am now, it’s high school; it’s Bill Clinton as President; it’s the beginning of Windows as an operating system that many people were using at home. But to me in 1989, the 60s were another era, which is how it feels, I guess, when you didn’t live it.

In the story Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is a child of the 60s, but his wife Annie (Amy Madigan) is even more so. They met at Berkeley (of course) he says in an opening narration that succinctly conveys his early years and foundation of the relationship with his father, which of course turns out to be the whole crux of where the story is going. The fictional Pulitzer Prize-winning author and voice of the cultural revolution, Terrence Mann (based on J.D. Salinger), features heavily as idol to Ray and Annie, catalyst for an argument about banning books, and character who helps Ray complete his task of building a baseball diamond in his cornfield so long dead players can come back and feel that long lost innocence again.

Phil Alden Robinson uses his screenplay as a bit of a soapbox to sort of rehash he themes of the 60s. It’s a real Baby Boomer move with this idea that their generation has exclusive credit for making this country a better place. It feels simultaneously cheap and also bittersweet throughout. The one moment that strikes an unbelievable and false note is Annie’s outburst argument against a mother proposing the banning of one of Mann’s boos in school. Annie speechifies on fascism and equates the woman in a single breath (practically) with Hitler and Stalin and in the process wins the crowd over to her side in the name of the Bill of Rights and capital ‘F’ freedom trumping capital ‘C’ communism and state control over the individual. It’s this real “yee-haw” moment for the hippies who grew up and found themselves irrelevant through the 80s when so many of their once ideological brethren had turned corporate capitalist. The sad truth is that in those kind of board meetings where people want to prevent kids from reading a book, a good argument for freedom would never win.

And I don’t want to dump on the movie, because I was surprised by how good it was. Nor do I want to dwell on it, but I think it’s worth mentioning that Kevin Costner’s acting leaves so much to be desired, especially watching him alongside James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster, and even Ray Liotta. Where Costner succeeds as a movie star is in having the quality of the every man. He just feels right as Ray Kinsella, he fits the role like a glove even if he doesn’t deliver his lines with the right intonation or emotionality. He’s not the most charismatic performer, but he hits the most important line almost perfectly at the end when he says, “Dad…do you want to have a catch?” That’s the moment that killed the men in the audience.

Still, to watch Jones in this movie is just incredible. I didn’t know how good he was until I watched this with fresh eyes. He’s funny and every line is perfectly spoken. Everyone remembers his big speech about baseball being the one constant in America’s cultural history, but consider his first meeting with Ray. He is absolutely hilarious and completely real. And then Burt Lancaster shows up as Archie “Moonlight” Graham, a little know historical figure who played one inning in the major leagues and never got to bat. He went on to become a small town doctor. Ray meets him in a sequence that takes him back in time slightly and Lancaster also gets to deliver a big speech and it might be one of the best moments in the movie. But then I also come back to the scene when Ray meets Shoeless Joe (Ray Liotta) for the first time when he appears in the cornfield. Watch Liotta’s near-silent performance as he slowly explores the grass, the field, the bats, the feel of the ball in this hand. It’s truly a magical movie moment that made me wish I could have experience it in the cinema in 1989.

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