Boy I’m getting all my controversial opinions out, aren’t I?
Field of Dreams is on everybody’s “Best Movies” lists, but it’s a stupid movie and no one understands why. I guess because it makes them “feel good”. Which, I guess, is fine — art is supposed to make you feel something. I suppose it’s satisfying to see a jerkass yuppie blowhard get his comeuppance or an affirmation that the life choices you made weren’t mistakes or to see a grown man get a second chance to bond with his father.
And it all hinges around baseball. That god-given, American-as-apple-pie (suspiciously-similar-to-English-cricket) sport of kings and peasants. It’s Hollywood’s go-to pastime and cinema darling. Easy to pick up, hard to master. It has so many aspects ripe for stories–the economy (Moneyball), triumph over prejudice (A League of Their Own, 42), relationship woes (Fever Pitch, Trouble with the Curve, For the Love of the Game), thriller (The Fan), coming of age (The Sandlot), wish fulfillment (Rookie of the Year, Little Big League), and of course, the good old underdog story (Major League, The Natural… and pretty much all the rest). But then we got Field of Dreams, which is a… ghost story… where ghosts are nice?
And by the way, why is it that one guy can’t see the ghosts and then can suddenly see them all after one steps out. And why do the ghosts appear as the age they were at their baseball prime, but they seem to remember everything of their lives? This is my complaint about ghost stories in general — ghosts have no rules so nothing matters. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Here’s my first problem: the main character has no character arc. What’s his problem? Well, he’s bored. He’s a man of the land, beholden to his bills. He feels like he’s missing something, that he’s meant for something more. Well, isn’t that white privilege in a nutshell. You’re stuck in Iowa, that’s your damn problem. People in Iowa look at Des Moines like it’s Capital City. (“Man, if I could just get to Des Moines I’ll have ‘made it’.” “We gotta get to Des Moines this weekend.”)
That’s what he wants. What he needs is to reconcile with his father. All he wants is to have one last “catch” with his dad. Well, that’d be fine except that it never comes up. None of the problems or conflicts in the plot have anything to do with his father. In fact, you forget he’s even a factor until the end of the movie.
And what’s worse, the movie doesn’t show you any of these motivations, it TELLS you. It tells you in the opening narration. It tells you in an actionless dialogue between him and his wife. What does that make the plot? A bunch of gibberish.
The inciting incident for the plot is that Kevin Costner hears a voice. It tells him to build a baseball field. Why does he do it? Because there’s no movie if he doesn’t. It’s like the Gremlins rules. I mean, I love Gremlins, but no sunlight? No water? Those are the two most abundant things on this planet. How have gremlins not overrun the world by this point? How does Gizmo live without getting water to drink? They make the rules silly so that they’re impossible to follow. Because if they are followed, there’s no movie.
Anyway, back to Kevin Costner. Nothing he does is character-motivated. He doesn’t build the field because his family will starve if he doesn’t, or it’ll lead to seeing his father again. He just does it because someone told him to. This is what we call “railroading” in the D&D world. The Dungeon Master is putting out notes and clues so the players will go where HE wants them to go. He doesn’t let them act according to their motivations, their wants, their mistakes, desires to love and protect and sacrifice. So what does this voice want? To get America to appreciate baseball again?
For instance, there is no reason that, at the baseball game, Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones) should suddenly jump in front of Kevin Costner’s car just as he’s about to leave, thinking he’s failed his mission, and confess that he saw the ghostly message on the jumbotron too. It’s so dramatic it’s comical.
What should have happened is that, after this white guy talks his ear off about voices in his head and old dead baseball players in his yard, he sees the Jumbotron get all screwy and display a message about Archibald “Moonlight” Graham and goes “Holy shit! Did you see that? The Jumbotron’s messing up and no one else can tell! Are you seeing this?” No, he just keeps it to himself so we can have this cinematic revelation later.
Since we mentioned him, let’s talk about “Moonlight” Graham and his strange subplot. Kevin Costner does some research and finds out he was a kid who played one inning, then became a pediatrician. What does Kevin Costner need to do for him? Nothing, I guess, since he’s quite dead. But then he time-travels to 1972 and has a conversation with old Dr. Graham (or his ghost–who knows), in which he affirms how he’s quite satisfied with how his life turned out. Everything seems resolved.
EXCEPT, on the way back home, they pick up (the ghost of) young “Archie” Graham. They take him to play baseball with all the other ghosts. Later, when Kevin Costner’s daughter starts choking, there’s a big dramatic moment where (the ghost of) young “Archie” Graham has to step off the baseball field and become (the ghost of) old Dr. Graham. (More ghost rules: how does he know he can save the girl if he’s not old enough to have gone through medical school yet?)
So what was the point of that? Didn’t we already establish that Dr. Graham accepted his life choices? Why did we need to show this again? And what does it matter — he’s a frickin’ ghost. He can’t change. He can’t influence lives anymore. But the story is treating him like a protagonist who needs to learn a lesson. What is this for? Who is supposed to see this?
Speaking of ghosts — fuck “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Even the movie doesn’t make him very likable, and it’s supposedly painting him as a good guy. He’s a cheater. He’s a stubborn asshole. He’s a moron. He changed his story throughout the trial. He took $5,000 but says he “did nothing on the field to throw the games in any way”. If you take money to commit a crime, but don’t commit the crime, that’s still wrong. Even if he didn’t do anything wrong, he didn’t speak up when others did. He could have done something but he let it happen. It’s like what Spider-Man said in Captain America: Civil War.
But the thing I most hate is James Earl Jones’s speech at the end, basically browbeating us with “why this movie is so great and you should like it and if you don’t like it, you’re a communist.” And it sucks because James Earl Jones is a highlight — it’s nice to see him playing someone who’s not a king or an emperor or the voice of one. But here’s what he says when the yuppie brother-in-law tries to convince Kevin Costner to sell the farmland and he can’t think of a reason not to (other than the ghosts in his corn):
“Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it. For it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers. Sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”
They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it? That sounds frickin’ scary to me. How? How did they know? Are they zombies? Brainwashed? And there’s life after death? Ghosts are real? Does this suddenly prove the existence of God? Holy shit, forget baseball — this changes everything.
But even if divine intelligence hasn’t been proven, the whole thing sounds pretty apocalyptic to me. The last shot is this huge line of cars jampacked on the road to his house. Everyone’s suddenly been called to this farm field in Iowa. They get there and it’s “Why am I here? I suddenly had the urge to take my family two hundred miles away, ignored my job, forgot to feed the pets, and didn’t bring my wallet.” Plus, Kevin Costner’s farm is going to be trashed. Remember Woodstock?
“They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines” — bullshit. Do you see those cheap bleachers? Maybe, like, ten people’ll fit into those seats. The voice told him to build a field, but it wasn’t specific on seating capacity, unfortunately.
“Sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon.” I just have no idea what this means. What does it mean to “sit in shirtsleeves”? Does one “sit in jeans”? Or “sit in a hat”?
“It’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.” You do realize that not everyone likes baseball, Terrence? Not everyone likes sports. Some of us like our cosplay or video games or tabletop games or puzzles or self-fitness or non-competitive sports like American Ninja Warrior or Wipeout or competitive non-sports like The Masked Singer or RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“Baseball has marked the time.” What, did time not start until 1871? Was there no American history before that? Was everything else unimportant? Incidentally, no one invited Satchel Paige or Smokey Joe Williams onto the “field of dreams”, did they?
And at the very end, Kevin Costner gets his catch with his dad. He gets to “resolve” things, although they do it in a very manly way where no one expresses any feelings or apologizes. Plus, it’s his dad before he had his kid. So while Kevin Costner might feel reconciled, it’s not reciprocated. The father (who is a ghost) doesn’t understand what’s going on and gets no catharsis from it.
I mean yeah, maybe I’m being nitpicky and pedantic here. But this is supposed to be a story about faith and redemption, and I don’t see where the events of the plot reflect that theme. And I don’t see the story of a man overcoming obstacles to get to his atonement (and what he needs to atone for doesn’t seem significant). I see a man being forced into action with no stakes, no regard for motive, and no idea what the end goal is. The puzzle purely exists so that pieces can be put together, not to make a beautiful picture.