In this sentimental movie about baseball, Kevin Costner plays an inept farmer in Iowa who begins to hear things. First the message is, “If you build it, he will come.” It moves on to say, “Go the Distance.” These eerie messages spur Kinsella, the farmer, to take down a portion of his corn crop in order to build a baseball field, complete with night lights, which brings Shoeless Joe Jackson, of the 1919 Black Sox, to play again.
The theme of the movie has something to do with the dishonored being restored to some kind of dignity. Shoeless Joe was disgraced in the scandal of a rigged World Series game which resulted in his being banned from baseball for life, along with the rest of his teammates. The White Sox of 1919 were considered one of the greatest, most colorful, most entertaining teams of all time. To have them removed at that point in their careers was a blow not just to their honor, but to the sport itself. Many wonder what would have happened in the history of baseball if they had been allowed to continue playing. Ray Kinsella, the farmer in Iowa, when he builds his field so that they might play again, almost gets to resume a patch of history many wished had not been interrupted.
But there are other dishonored characters whose dreams need to be restored in the course of building the field. Moonlight Graham, for instance, had one at bat in the major leagues, which resulted in failure. Moonlight had gone on to become a doctor of standing in a small town in Minnesota. His medical skills come in handy later in the movie. But the reason he is here is to include him in the “field of dreams,” to continue to try to live out a dream career in baseball.
And then there is the character of the writer, played by James Earl Jones. Kinsella goes on a quest to find him, the famously reclusive writer, whose work had an impact on many in the United States during a period of upheaval and revolt (the 60s). This part of the movie even more than the magical realism of bringing dead baseball players to life is hard to take. But when James Earl Jones shows up, you breathe a sigh of relief. “At last, a real actor,” I thought. It’s not that Costner can’t act exactly, it’s just that there’s something innately irritating about him. In 1989, when the movie was made, he was at the peak of his beauty, very easy to look at. You could overlook his slight arrogance and lack of awareness of the other actors who were working around him. But when Jones shows up, it is pure pleasure to watch a pro behave as irritated as we are. His fits of pique are a delight. And even when he goes on the odyssey to bring Moonlight back to Iowa, you don’t mind, because it is Jones after all, the professional actor, and we want to stay in his company no matter how corny the subject matter.
There is also an appearance by Burt Lancaster which lends gravity to the situation. And the girl playing the farmer’s daughter is fine. But the point of the movie is to bring Kinsella back in touch with his father, from whom he was estranged, and who had a brief moment playing in the major leagues. Their game of catch at the end of the movie brings the predictable lump in the throat, and shows the direction to have been expertly done. It took me twenty six years to watch this movie because I wanted to resist its corniness. In the end I was powerless and had to give in to it.