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This piece originally ran on Midway Minute, a daily newsletter about Chicago sports. Sign up for free here.
There are two kinds of people in this world.
The type that enjoys watching a good sports movie and cheers at the end.
And the type that watches the same movie and writes an article on the Internet two decades later that you were an idiot for cheering at the end.
Some people out there don’t like “Hoosiers.” Others like to mock “Rudy.”
But the movie that far and away draws the most digital scorn is “Field of Dreams.” Indeed, bashing the 1989 Kevin Costner baseball cornfield fantasy has become a cottage industry for baseball bloggers over the past decade.
Google “Why Field of Dreams actually sucks” and you’ll get a full page of results from contrarians and cranks. Even Jerry Blevins gets in on it.
Those results will likely only grow this week as the baseball world returns to the Dyersville, Iowa farm for the MLB game between the White Sox and Yankees. In fact, I’m certain there are others working on similar pieces as I write this.
To which I say, “(Yawn).” If your first instinct after seeing John Kinsella play catch with his dad while the sun sets and the music soars is “meh?”
Well, that says more about you than it does the “Field of Dreams.”
That’s not to say I think ‘Field of Dreams’ is immune from criticism.
The first half-hour is pretty pedestrian, and I’m here for it if you want to argue the film doesn’t start getting good until Terrance Mann stands in the path of the Volkswagen van in Boston.
I will also accept these valid takes:
The next movie Kevin Costner carries will be the first. He plays John Kinsella the same as he does Crash Davis and Robin Hood. Costner seems like a nice guy, a great baseball fan and I’m overdue to watch Yellowstone. But … he’s basically a VORP actor in this one.
Ray Liotta showing up as Shoeless Joe Jackson doesn’t help matters. Much is made of Liotta batting right-handed while Jackson hit left, but the bigger mistake to me was having Henry Hill play a ballplayer from South Carolina. I can’t watch Liotta’s first scene without hearing the opening narration of “Goodfellas” or picturing Shoeless Joe shiv Billy Batts in the trunk of a car. Thankfully, Shoeless Joe is in this movie the perfect amount. Any more Liotta and I’d be arguing the other side.
The opening 30 minutes is basically a boring mixture of great cinematography, a disembodied voice doing ASMR 30 years before that was a thing and Costner trying to convince every town person and Timothy Busfield that he’s not crazy. Oh, and there’s an awkward school board meeting that would’ve been much better had it ended with Jimmy Chitwood showing up and saying it was time to play some ball.
The rest of the movie slaps, though.
Three words: James Earl Jones.
Three more: Burt Freakin’ Lancaster.
If “Field of Dreams” ever threatened to careen off into full-on cheeseball territory, these two Hollywood legends showed up to make sure that it didn’t. Jones as Mann, the J.D. Salinger avatar who fights through Nixonian-induced disillusionment to reconnect with his childhood. Lancaster as “Moonlight” Graham, the small-town Minnesota doctor with a single plate appearance that always left him wondering.
Watching Jones and Lancaster do their thing is still a simple pleasure 30 years later. The gravity of their performances could’ve laid the shortcomings of the script bare. They instead pull the loose strings together, not demeaning the material and giving the audience permission to believe in what’s going on out in the field.
(Frank Whaley also later shows up as Young Moonlight Graham, which proves “Field of Dreams” is a good movie. Go ahead: Try and name a bad Frank Whaley flick. You can’t.)
But it’s not just the presence of Jones and Lancaster that gives “Field of Dreams” its armor against the haters. It’s the film’s simple emotional core, its fulfilling end, and the refusal to let much else get in the way. That setup is viewed as a sign of weakness in these embittered times, but in 1989 it was a callback to a different era in both Hollywood and America.
Has the 21st Century been so bad and turned us so cynical that we can no longer sit back and find a win in one man’s goofy quest to plow over his crops for reasons even he won’t fully understand until his ghost dad takes off his catcher’s gear?
I’d like to think we can still can.
Here’s what the great Roger Ebert, a critic who was smart enough to let his guard down when warranted, wrote in his 1989 review of the movie:
As “Field of Dreams” developed this fantasy, I found myself being willingly drawn into it. Movies are often so timid these days, so afraid to take flights of the imagination, that there is something grand and brave about a movie where a voice tells a farmer to build a baseball diamond so that Shoeless Joe Jackson can materialize out of the cornfield and hit a few fly balls. This is the kind of movie Frank Capra might have directed, and Jimmy Stewart might have starred in — a movie about dreams.
What’s interesting is that writer/director Phil Alden Robinson wanted Stewart to play Moonlight Graham, but wasn’t able to get him. It makes for a fascinating what-if.
Whether or not Robinson had designs on emulating Capra is uncertain, but putting “Field of Dreams” in the same ever-optimistic frame — if not the same rank — should heighten your appreciation for the move if you’re willing.
Look, “Field of Dreams” is far from a perfect movie. It’s certainly not the best baseball movie, and it may not even be the best baseball movie with James Earl Jones in it.
But it’s still a great baseball movie and a reminder of when we used baseball movies to tell different stories about ourselves. If you’re not a puddle by the end of “Field of Dreams,” I don’t know what to tell you.
Kevin Kaduk is a ListWire contributor and the founder of Midway Minute, a daily newsletter about Chicago sports. You sign up for free here.