videovault fodI don’t know if it’s the Costner Factor, but I’d not seen Field of Dreams for a good fifteen years before tonight. I first saw it in school, no doubt as part of a bored teacher’s attempt at engaging us, and it was a true surprise. I really don’t like baseball, I didn’t buy into the nostalgia and I can’t share the associated Americana, I didn’t know or care who Kevin Costner was (more to my shame I had never seen Burt Lancaster in a film at that point) and I kept wondering who the old guy playing a writer sounded like*. And so the film played out.

I loved it. It had a huge heart and kept its head above the ocean of sentiment and nostalgia it sailed on.

It’s not an obvious 80s classic; I imagine it’s often relegated to the tearjerker bin, or, again, perhaps the Costner factor overshadows its charm. I took another look, and here’s why I think you should too.

*it was Darth Vader, of course.

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Forget the baseball angle.

This is not a sports film. Yes, baseball and its place in America’s history winds through the narrative of the film and James Earl Jones makes a slightly overblown case for its importance as the backbone of American life, but it is a game, and like all games it is the players who give us a connection. Field of Dreams is about finding yourself in the middle of your life, comfortable and happy yet restless and longing. Moonlight Graham (more on him later) memorably talks of getting close to his dream only to have it brush past him like a stranger in a crowd. When Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella walks amidst the fields of corn and hears the voice ‘If you build it, he will come’ his unconscious is alerted, his long forgotten dream is nearby. The rest of the film is Ray waking up.

Overlook the Costner Factor

fod posterYes, his political turns in JFK and Thirteen Days were pretty decent and for my money The Untouchables was good fun but Robin Hood, Dances with Wolves, the soddenWaterworld conspire to turn his career into a long line of barely passable fare with uninspired scripts and little heart. I cannot bear to mention The Bodyguard but I will as an example of how one misstep can lead to very bad things.

Here though, he excels because he is understated and allows us to believe in his dreams. He is a genuine man, not a thatch jumping ruffian or a bodyguard to Whitney Houston. There’s no heroics, Costner doesn’t lip-jump between a series of women – he is a simple man. In a film which deals with the benefits to a leap of faith he walks the fine line between cynicism and crazy, and this is important; if we don’t believe him, we don’t believe in the film and it’s over.

Peace and Paths not taken.

I had forgotten James Earl Jones was in this, and its strange because he was easily my favourite of the characters. He plays Terence Mann, a thinly disguised J.D. Salinger (the film is based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W. Kinsella and shares a strange symbosis with Salinger) who accompanies Ray on his journey to find the answers he seeks. His place as an author whose revolutionary ideals form the basis of much of the film’s beat poetry philosophy. Ray admits in the opening narration to smoking a little grass and a standout scene sees Ray’s wife, played by Amy Madigan, stands up in a conservative PTA meeting on the banning of one of Mann’s novels, she lives out the liberal fantasy and the words ‘Nazi Cow’ have never been used better. This film is all about the path less travelled by, and in a Hollywood of action movies and formulaic family fare, that really does make all the difference.

fod cast

Burt Lancaster.

It was his last film, and he was 81 when he appeared as Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham, but his presence in the film adds more than a nod to the Hollywood of the 1950s, a period when films could be this whimsical – something Field of Dreams tries hard to emulate.

His turn as Moonlight Graham gives the film a real sense of magic, he holds the screen in a way no-one else is able to. His smiles are warmer than a holiday on the sun, his voice is smooth and dry with experience and his character is fairly standard in its relevance to the plot, but when he winks you’ll break out in the widest of smiles. The man is a class act, and his power as an actor is evident in ever softly spoken word; in among the great cast he is the one you’ll remember longest.

Put simply, there is no finer final performance in cinema history. When he walks back across the baseball field after making the choice to save a child’s life and give up his dream (watch the film – it’ll make sense), he has the setting sun on his shoulders, Ray Liotta calls out, ‘Rookie? – you did good.’ He turns to face the crowd, gives a smile as magical as a skyfull of stars and turns to walk off stage. If you have a heart – you will cry.

They just don’t make them like this anymore.

It’s true. When the credits appeared I thought something was wrong. Kevin Costner wasn’t making films in the 1950s… and I realised then that this is all about recapturing the lost innocence and passion of your formative years – but more than that – this was a film harkening back to the Hollywood of old. The absence of cynicism and bombast, and when the most sophisticated special effect was of the departing figures into the fields vanishing into the fields of corn you know that this is all about the story.

kevin costner

Yes, it is sentimental. Yes, the film winds your heartstrings in its fingers and knows exactly when to pull tight. Yes, itis Kevin Costner, but it is more than that. It is full of heart and if you buy into the madness of someone bankrupting themselves to stare at an empty playing field (which is what you see if you don’t believe – but, of course, you will believe) then you’ll revel in the warmth and joy of this small movie. The music is haunting and jaunty, the script isn’t full of belly laughs or tawdry and overblown melodrama, the pace is kept gentle all the way, yet it succeeds not in spite of these things, but because of them.

The final scene takes place in magic time, the curious time at the end of the day when dusk is shadowing into night and a glittering grey light shines. As the sun fades over the Iowa cornfield and the denouement plays out I was left remembering all those long evenings when I was a kid, when the summers were endless and there was nothing in the road ahead but potential and adventure. I forgot it was a baseball film, I forgot that it was corny in more ways than the obvious, I forgot even that it was Kevin Costner, and I did something that is not often inspired by a film, I remembered. And that made all the difference.