Shoeless Joe Jackson: "Hey - is this heaven?"
Ray Kinsella: "No. It's Iowa."
The passage of time can sometimes alter one's perspective on a particular film. For instance, Kramer vs. Kramer always left me cold until I become a father myself, and understood the complex, innate emotions Dustin Hoffman's character experiences in that film. I saw Field of Dreams when it was first released, in April 1989, but not again until sitting down to watch this new Blu-ray edition. I thought it was fairly good at the time but not being a huge baseball fan its metaphoric uses of the Great American Pastime didn't resonate as strongly with me as it did with others.
Looking at it again I can see that baseball is less important to the story than I thought it was. I was 23 back then and I'm 43 now, and Field of Dreams is less about baseball than it is about things most 23-year-olds aren't thinking about, though a lot of middle-aged people in their forties sure are. It's a movie about coming to grips with unrealized dreams, with unresolved (and irresolvable) conflicts, with loss and penance. It's an imperfect movie, but a lot of it is excellent, and it plays more like literary fantasy than just about any Hollywood fantasy film before or since.
The Blu-ray edition offers an eye-pleasing transfer and lots of good extras, though all are repeats from previous DVD versions.
The unusual yet surprisingly dreamily logical and credible story is set in rural Iowa where former '60s radicals-turned-corn farmer Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) and his very understanding wife, Annie (Amy Madigan), live with their daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffman). Strolling through his cornfield, a voice (played by "Himself," according to the credits) whispers, "If you build it, he will come." At first Ray thinks he's the victim of a practical joke, or that he's hearing things, but later the voice speaks to him again while a vision of a baseball field in the middle of his farmland appears in the distance, thus convincing him of what he must do.
Though ridiculed by his neighbors, and despite the precarious nature of the family's finances, Ray plows under his corn and builds a regulation baseball field.
Some time later, the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), the unjustly disgraced former Chicago White Sox player once idolized by Ray's deceased father, appears on the ball field. Joe is deeply moved at Ray's invitation to play ball once again - Shoeless Joe had been banned for life following the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Later on, the seven other disgraced White Sox players join him on the field.
Then Ray hears that voice again, telling him to "ease his pain" and later to "go the distance." At a PTA meeting where some ultra-conservative parents want to ban the books of iconic '60s author Terence Mann (clearly based on J.D. Salinger, which is who the character is in W.P. Kinsella's original novel, Shoeless Joe), Ray decides the voice is referring to Mann, now an adamant recluse living in Boston. Though the bank is closing in on the Kinsella's mortgage, Ray hops in his VW Bus and hightails it to Boston.
Field of Dreams doesn't much resemble other Hollywood fantasy films of the past or those of recent years. It has more the small town Americana and dream-like logic of literary fantasists like Ray Bradbury or Richard Matheson. Usually when Hollywood tries to tackle a story like this, they leave a lot of glaring, unresolved plot holes stemming from its fantastic premise. Somehow, the events in Field of Dreams seem so logical the questions and ramifications its story raises become strangely immaterial.
At its best, Field of Dreams is beautifully written and acted. In his last film role, Burt Lancaster is wonderful as Archibald "Moonlight" Graham, a small town doctor who in his youth had played in the Major Leagues - for one inning. He never even got a chance to bat, and rather than be sent back down to the minors, Graham, a real historical figure in baseball, gave up the sport to go to medical school. Lancaster's scenes with Costner have that kind of movie magic one finds only in the very best films, and the resolution of Lancaster's character is emotionally powerful.
The picture has its flaws. A subplot involving Annie's brother (Timothy Busfield) and his efforts to force Ray and Annie to sell their farm, create artificial conflict the film doesn't really need. And, in a few early scenes, the picture oversells some of the comedy; when early on Ray begins questioning his sanity, Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and the Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream" are heard over the radio while Harvey, the movie with Jimmy Stewart and his imaginary rabbit, is on television. That's overkill.
But Field of Dreams is also a lot funnier than I had remembered it. When the voice comes back, Annie wonders, "You don't have to build a football field now, do you?" And baseball fans enjoyed some of the in-jokes; though the ghosts of many early baseball legends appear on Ray's field, Ty Cobb isn't one of them: "None of us could stand the son of a bitch when he was alive," Shoeless Joe explains, "so we told him to stick it."
The taut script really cuts to the chase, too. Ray builds it quick and they come mighty fast; the story is already well underway less than 15 minutes into the picture. Phil Alden Robinson, who adapted the novel as well as directed the film, avoids syrupy sentimentality, pulling back just enough to make Field of Dreams richly satisfying without the sickly sweet aftertaste patented by directors like Spielberg and Ron Howard. James Horner's lovely score does much the same, and this is probably Costner's best performance overall.
Video & Audio
Filmed in spherical 1.85:1 with Panavision cameras and lenses, Field of Dreams gets a big boost on Blu-ray and its 1080p transfer. Much of the film was photographed by John Lindley around and during "magic time" when the skies are full of strong amber reds and deep blues, and these really look quite beautiful here. The BD-50 has a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix with optional subtitles in English, Spanish, and French. The audio is strong without overpowering the viewer, as well it shouldn't.
All of the supplements are carried over from previous DVD and laserdisc editions, and are all in 480i/p standard-def:
From the April 1998 DVD release:
An Audio Commentary with Director Phil Alden Robinson and Director of Photography John Lindley
From the June 2004 DVD:
From Father to Son: Passing Along the Pastime, a 39-minute featurette
Roundtable with Kevin Costner, Bret Saberhagen, George Brett, and Johnny Bench is exactly what it sounds like: a chat about the movie with its star and three baseball greats.
Galena, IL Pinch Hits for Chisholm, MN (a six-minute featurette about one of the film's locations)
The Diamond in the Husks (a 13-minute look at the "real" Field of Dreams, in Dyersville, Iowa)
Bravo Special: From Page to Screen (a 46-minute examination of the adaptation process)
Deleted Scenes with Introductions by Phil Alden Robinson
Field of Dreams - A Scrapbook
Although I enjoyed Field of Dreams when it was new, watching it again significantly older and hopefully a wee bit wiser impressed me much more. It's a mostly terrific film, and the Blu-ray disc offers a handsome, accurate representation of the theatrical experience, bolstered by older but detailed supplementary material. A DVD Talk Collector Series Title.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is due in stores this June, and on sale now.