I was set to hate Field of Dreams. Normally, I would abhor just about everything in it. As you might have gathered from my Waterworld review, I can't stand Kevin Costner. I have never been able to fathom the allure of any sport, and while baseball isn't nearly as putrid to me as football, I still didn't have any interest in it. And I really can't stand the cloyingly sweet brand of nostalgiac Americana that the film peddles; I always found that it rung pathetically hollow with me.
So, with all of that, why did I still end up really liking this movie? Because it's more than it appears to be on the surface.
Kevin Costner stars as Ray Kinsella, a baseball fan turned 60's radical turned Iowa farmer. He lives with his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan), and their daughter, Karin (Gaby Hoffman), on their corn farm in Iowa. As the film opens, Ray is tending to the field when he hears a voice. It says, simply, "If you build it...he will come." At first, Ray thinks he's going mad. But then he has a vision of a baseball field in the middle of his corn crop, and he knows what he has to do. With Amy's blessing, he cuts down a portion of the field and erects a baseball diamond in its place. Now, instead of Ray thinking he's gone crazy, it's everyone else in town who thinks it. And it appears they might be right, as once it's built, nothing happens. Until one day, a mysterious man appears on the field. It's "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), an unfairly disgraced baseball player who happened to be Ray's estranged father's personal hero. Ray can't believe his eyes, especially because Shoeless Joe is actually dead. But lo and behold, there he is, large as life, and aching to play some ball. Soon, all of that year's White Sox roster (all dead) show up and start practicing on the field. As great as this is, it has a downside. Building the baseball field bankrupted the family. And with less land to grow corn on, they aren't going to make enough to keep it. In the midst of this, Ray hears the voice again, with a new command. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Ray is going to have to make some tough personal choices if he wants to save both his farm and his field of dreams.
Field of Dreams works because it's not a film about baseball. It's a film about relationships, about society, about living your dreams no matter how crazy they might be. I couldn't understand why the filmmakers let Ray finish building the field within the first fifteen minutes of the movie. It made no narrative sense until I found out that the field was just a means to an end, and not the end itself. By the time the movie finishes, Ray has driven to all different parts of the country, met a literary legend, and even gets a chance to make restitution with someone he thought was long gone.
Knowing my great disdain for Kevin Costner, it must mean something when I tell you that he gives a genuinely good performance in this movie. Ray is immensely likeable, thoughtful, caring, and idealistic. Costner doesn't put on airs of messianic import the way he did in some of his later films, he just plays Ray as a simple, down to earth kind of person, who happens to have his head in the clouds. It's an emotionally sincere performance that he only equalled one other time, in Oliver Stone's gripping JFK.
The rest of the cast match Costner note for note. Amy Madigan was an inspired bit of casting for the role of Annie. First and foremost, she actually looks like a girl from Iowa, and not a movie star who happened to land in Iowa for the duration of the movie. Secondly, she has a charm and wit about her that more than amply stands counterpoint to some of Ray's more outlandish claims, and provides the grounding point of the film. James Earl Jones is, as always, phenomenal in his role as Terence Mann, a disaffected writer from the 60's who has lost his sense of passion. Jones' voice alone is an unequalled pleasure to listen to, and his character growth in the film is uplifting. And finally, Ray Liotta plays Shoeless Joe. Liotta plays Shoeless as a tough nut to crack, with warmth hiding behind a colder exterior. As the film progresses, he opens up, so that by the end, we see him for the softy he is.
Field of Dreams postulates that if you set your heart to something, you can perform magic, and some of that makes its way onto the screen. In particular, the scene where Shoeless Joe first appears has a true sense of wonder to it. The foggy night, the baseball lights, the performances by Liotta and Costner, they all ring true. And perhaps that's where the movie suceeds. Despite the fact that at times it is cloyingly sweet in a cliche fashion, the filmmakers and actors always play things straight and true, without any trickery. They let the story unfold in its way, and heaven help me, it works. It works really well. There's a sense of the genuine in the material that could easily have come off as mock sincerity, but the cast and crew walk the fine line and pull it off with finesse. The end result is a film that has been known to make grown men cry. Fittingly, not knowing what the film was really about, I watched this with my father, and I'm glad I did.
The HD DVD:
Dear lord, Universal, what did you do with Field of Dreams since 1989? Keep it stored in a dumpster? The reason I ask is because this 1080p 1.85:1 transfer looks awful. And I don't mean awful in the "it doesn't look as good as Batman Begins" way, I mean awful in that a good portion of the color is incorrectly timed. Flesh tones generally appear an orangey-red, and not just during scenes at dusk. A lot of the rest of the image is washed out. And then, to make matters worse, dark scenes (and a lot of the film takes place at night), have blacks so thick that you lose a lot of the image. Field of Dreams isn't that old, you'd think they would have either preserved it or restored it better than this. This is one of the worst high definition transfers I've ever seen, if not the worst.
Strike two. The audio for Field of Dreams has clearly degraded quite a bit since its original release, and it looks like Universal again did not attempt any sort of clean-up. Dialogue is thin and at times difficult to hear (except for James Earl Jones, of course), and the sound effects of the bats hitting the balls don't pack the punch they should. The score doesn't fare any better. They call this a Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix, but I would call it Dolby Digital Minus.
Universal had two outs with the audio and the video, so they bring in a power hitter for the extras, and score a home run. Field of Dreams is packed to the brim with goodies. So many, in fact, that at a certain point I got sick of hearing about the film.
The main supplement is entitled "From Father to Son: Passing Along The Pastime." This retrospective contains interviews with everyone involved in the film except Kevin Costner, each with funny, sad, or telling anecdotes about the filming. It doesn't really follow a "from script to shooting to screen" kind of format, rather it simply allows the participants to share their thoughts on individual scenes and the overall process, as well as a lovely section dedicated to the late Burt Lancaster.
The other major feature is a roundtable discussion between Kevin Costner and several baseball hall of famers, specifically Bret Saberhagen, George Brett, and Johnny Bench. Costner invites the players to his home to watch the DVD (or maybe HD DVD?) of Field of Dreams, and afterwards they discuss a wide variety of subjects in his backyard. To my surprise, Costner for the most part sits back and listens to the players, whom he clearly admires immensely, usually only speaking to prompt them to talk more. To my chagrin, the topic quickly changed from the movie to the finer points of baseball, which are entirely lost on me, but all of the players are affable and enjoyable to hear. I wish more DVDs had features like this.
For a more detailed view of the film, you can turn on the audio commentary with director Phil Alden Robinson and DP John Lindley. For Robinson, making Field of Dreams was a real labor of love, and it shows here, with both him and Lindley remembering a great deal, from technical details to funny and touching stories.
From here on out, the rest of the material is either fluff or repeats information from the previous three segments. This is the point where I started to feel like I was getting almost too much in the way of supplements.
"Diamond In The Husk" is a look at what has happened to the field made for the film, which still exists today and, eerily mirroring the film, has become a tourist attraction. The featurette has interviews with the owners of the field, the owners of the gift shop next to the field, and several tourists who have come to try and experience the magic they felt when they saw the movie.
"Galena, IL Pitch Hits For Chisholm, MN" is a look at the town of Galena, IL, which stood in for the town of Chisholm in the film. Our guide in this piece is a local historian. The whole thing, while only lasting a little over five minutes, feels hokey and is a total fluff piece.
Bravo's "From Page To Screen: Field of Dreams" is an hour-long documentary done independently of the DVD release, which is included here because, well, it's an hour long. It does feature more information on the author of the original novel, Shoeless Joe, but all that did was make me feel that the novel contained all the hollow Americana I thought would permeate the film. Once they get into the production of the movie itself, it's just repeated information.
There are several deleted scenes with introductions by director Robinson. Some of the scenes are funny, some useless. Even more useless are the introductions, where Robinson says almost exactly the same thing about each scene.
Last and least is the Field of Dreams Scrapbook, essentially a longform EPK from 1989. It does go into aspects of post-production not shown in the previous supplements, but to get to that information you have to wade through a lot of stuff you'll have already seen by now.
As has become routine with Universal, no theatrical trailers of any kind are to be found on this HD DVD.
Field of Dreams is a rare movie: one where all of its disparate elements come together to make a film which is so much more than the sum of its parts. It manages to transcend what should have been a overly sentimental tear-jerker story to become a modern classic. And it still holds up today. While the HD DVD is loaded with an admirable amount of special features, the audio quality is not up to par, and the video quality is abysmal. However, the film is so good that it still gets a rating of Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.