Society has a penchant for wanting everything to fit into its own neat little box. It makes life so much easier to define. This is as true for movies as anything, where we want to be able to compartmentalize films into cut & dried genres like comedy, action, western, horror, or drama. On occasion we’ll grudgingly submit to a special sub-category like family, sci-fi, Christmas, romantic comedy, thriller, or disaster epic. But what if a film simply refuses to be defined?? What if it cannot be shoehorned, pigeonholed, or painted with such a narrow perspective?? Such films are a rarity, and can be either an unmitigated disaster or particularly sublime.
I have seen today’s subject be classified as fantasy, which isn’t really a bad definition but doesn’t fit all that well either. Drama is accurate but does not come close to really capturing its essence. Many would call it a sports film but I think that is kind of like calling Abraham Lincoln a politician or The Louvre a museum…not untrue but certainly an epic oversimplification. It is, above all other 99 movies listed, the one that I think to myself “I wish I would have written that”.
There is creativity, and then there are ideas so singular that one just has to applaud the creator and simply say “Well done sir”. Such is the case with our #3 film, one that loses out on the top two spots by a nudge simply because it is another seasonal favorite. Surprisingly this time it isn’t a Christmas classic. Instead it is one I prefer to watch when the sun is bathing the Manoverse with warmth, birds are chirping their harmonious song, and the smell of freshly cut grass is trumped only by the sweet aroma of steak, hot dogs, and BBQ being cooked over an open flame. This is a film I can enjoy anytime, but prefer to watch in the summer, and more specifically, during baseball season.
It is the late 1980’s and you are a fat cat movie suit. You have a meeting where an idea is pitched about a middle-aged former flower child who’s now an Iowa farmer that hears a voice tell him to plow his corn and build a baseball field so Shoeless Joe Jackson can come back to play and JD Salinger can write about the whole thing. I’m not sure what’s crazier…that the movie was greenlit or that it turned out to be such an awesome masterpiece.
1989’s Field of Dreams stars Kevin Costner as that hippie/farmer/crazy dude, and James Earl Jones as the reclusive writer obviously based on Salinger. It was Costner’s second foray into the world of baseball, immediately following 1988’s Bull Durham (which ranks 17th on this list). The movie is based on a novel called Shoeless Joe, which I must admit I have not yet read therefore I cannot compare with any veracity the book & the movie. But when talking about Field of Dreams I sincerely believe there is one very important point that must be made: it is not about baseball.
As I write this I just happen to also be reading an anthology of stories by author Ray Bradbury, and it occurs to me that Field of Dreams could have easily been a Bradbury tale. It is a shamelessly sentimental flight of fancy, soaked in nostalgia with baseball utilized as a metaphor for life. Some of the more sober among us might look at such a film with derision, calling it melodramatic and maudlin, but I am a huge sucker for whimsically capricious stories and wish there were more of them produced. Too many movies are either dumbed down, anvilicious crapfests that anyone with a brain can figure out within 10 minutes or just completely pointless. And then of course there are the movies that spend quality time on the ride but reach the destination leaving the audience either confused or just unimpressed. Field of Dreams is none of these.
Costner is at his best here…better than Bull Durham, better than Tin Cup, and certainly better than Wyatt Earp, Waterworld, or Dances with Wolves. My favorite actor, Jimmy Stewart, would have been a fantastic choice to play Ray Kinsella if this film were made in 1949, but forty years onward a Stewart-esque Everyman performance suffices quite nicely. James Earl Jones adds the perfect level of gravitas as Terence Mann, a writer who inspired the 60’s counterculture by talking about “love, peace, and understanding” and was “a voice of reason during a time of great madness”. The novel used notoriously reclusive Catcher in the Rye raconteur JD Salinger, but obviously the role had to be fictionalized for the movie. Ray Liotta plays Shoeless Joe Jackson just one year before he would become a star in Goodfellas. And for me the real clincher, the part of the movie that takes it to a higher level, is a cameo by the legendary Burt Lancaster in what I believe was his last film. Time travel is almost always a cool device, and the way it is done here…long after one thinks they know where the story is headed…is subtle, surprising, and superb.
Field of Dreams has been voted in many polls as one of the top five sports movies of all time, and that’s fine. But it is not just a baseball movie. Field of Dreams is about regret. It is about redemption. It is about family. It is about happiness and realizing what that truly means. Would we grab one more shot at our dream like young Moonlight Graham, or, like the older Doc Graham, understand that the path we’ve taken fulfilled a more important destiny?? How great would it be to be Terence Mann and have a chance to undue all the damage decades of world weariness, skepticism, cynicism, and bitterness can do to the soul?? How many among us have, like Shoeless Joe, been (ostensibly) falsely accused or had something we truly loved taken away and only then learned to appreciate it?? Am I a bit effusive in my praise?? Probably. But while I love sports films as much as the next guy, I think the biggest reason I have such affection for Field of Dreams is because it goes so much deeper than the typical cliches, and in fact avoids most of them. It is a film than cannot really be compared to any other, even the plethora out there with baseball as a key element.
I think it makes sense to conclude with…well…the conclusion. I always say that only four films have ever made me cry. E.T. made me cry when I saw it in the theater, but I was a little kid so I’m not sure if that even counts. The Passion of the Christ brought tears, and that is self-explanatory. The 2008 Owen Wilson/Jennifer Aniston flick Marley & Me was supposed to be a comedy, but at the end I found myself clutching my beautiful puppy in my arms and bawling like a baby, which is why I have vowed never to watch it again. Fellow dog owners will understand. And then there is Field of Dreams. In the archives here at The Manofesto one can find my 35 Undeniable Truths of Life. #12 states that “anyone who doesn’t shed a tear during the last 10 minutes of Field of Dreams doesn’t have a heart”. I stand by that. In 20 years I have seen this movie countless times, and every single time that final scene gets me. I lost my Mom 11 years ago, and I miss her every day. There is nothing I wouldn’t give for one more conversation with her. My Dad is still around. He lives close by and I see him often and talk to him every day. As strange as it may seem to some, Field of Dreams, atleast on a subconscious level, has affected our relationship, because I never want to be haunted by unkind words or things left unsaid. Redemption is a wonderful thing, but even better is never having to be burdened by guilt in the first place.