Field of Dreams

In Field of Dreams James Earl Jones has an excellent speech about baseball and its ability to survive as America has moved forward. Since that speech Major League Baseball has lost an entire season to a player strike and attendance for games has continually dwindled. In a complete move of irony, I skipped a local baseball game for my first look at the Field of Dreams Anniversary DVD release. Indeed, the nature of baseball has changed since the movie was made 15 years ago. Starting out this film had two strikes against it with me. First, I don’t like Kevin Costner. I think he’s one of the most overrated actors of the modern age and he is seldom tolerable in the roles he picks. Secondly, I’m not the world’s biggest baseball fan. I played little league like just about every other boy out there, but I quickly identified that I wasn’t good at it, and it didn’t hold my interest. So, you can see how little I’d be interested in a baseball movie starring Costner.

That said, I can completely see why Field of Dreams was such a success. On the surface the movie is the tale of Ray Kinsella (Costner) following a mysterious voice as it leads him to build a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield and then track down a retired writer and a dead baseball player. Underneath the tale of baseball though, it’s a movie about relationships, and trying to find a way to repair those relationships even when the opportunity has long since passed away. I can see how that message, hidden under the baseball story, has brought men to tears and reunited fathers and sons for fifteen years. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I have a good relationship with my father, so the movie’s not much use for me there either. All this leaves for me is a badly acted strange tale of a man listening to an unidentified voice that leads him around the country while his farm potentially goes bankrupt – not exactly a fun flick to watch.

Costner is, as always, bland with poor, unemotional delivery of his lines. At least the picture is less then two hours long and we are spared another Kevin Costner epic film. Trying to make Costner look good is Amy Madigan as Kinsella’s wife Annie. Madigan isn’t emotionless in her delivery, she just can’t seem to pick the right emotion. For example, when her character calls down the local PTA for banning books, what should be a serious moment for Madigan just seems goofy and ridiculous. Luckily for the film it still has Film Greats James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster to help liven up things. As expected, when either of these legends are on screen the film bursts to life, but it’s not enough to make me forget or forgive Madigan or Costner for their destruction of what could be excellent dialogue. Timothy Busfield and Ray Liotta also provide good solid performances, but when you’re in a movie with such great acting and poor overacting, being good is basically being invisible.

The story of Field of Dreams is also kind of goofy. The powers that drive Ray Kinsella are never really explained (although my fiancée is betting the Kinsella house was built on an old Indian baseball diamond). Nobody ever really challenges the voice regardless of the potential financial harm it will put the family in. The only time a voice of reason starts to speak up it’s interrupted by a convenient dream the audience never saw. Apparently writer/director Phil Alden Robinson made quite a few changes when he adapted the original novel (titled “Shoeless Joe”) but explaining things or making either of the Kinsella characters rational wasn’t one of those changes. The result ends up being a movie that moves forwards without reason, overacted by two of Hollywood’s worst (seriously, Madigan joins my worst female list next to Juliette Lewis). If it wasn’t for a few shining moments here and there (mostly thanks to Jones or Lancaster) as a film Field of Dreams would be completely worthless. Instead it has its following of fathers and sons at odds with each other and baseball fans. The producers of the 15th Anniversary DVD release seem to realize the movie sells more because of baseball and less as a movie. The extras on the DVD release showcase that. Almost half of the extras are more about baseball and less about Field of Dreams itself. What’s more interesting is that I found moments of some of the documentaries and featurettes more emotionally interesting then the movie itself.

On the baseball side, you get some trivia. Several pages of text offer bits of information on the maximum length of a baseball bat, or the life span of a major league baseball. While the information is interesting, it’s a very bland presentation. Perhaps they could have put in a baseball lover’s trivia subtitle track over the movie? Anything would be an improvement over plain text screens. Separate information is given on major baseball stadiums around the country, including brief histories and trivia. Finally there’s a “Roundtable discussion” between Kevin Costner and several Hall of Famers. Costner invites the players over to his luxurious house, shows them the movie, and then they discuss how the movie affected them and what baseball is like. It’s probably interesting if you like baseball and know who the players are, otherwise it’s pretty much a bunch of ass kissing as the players compliment Costner and they all hero worship each other.

For the film lover, there are several behind the scenes documentaries for the movie. “From Father to Son: Passing Along the Pastime” sounds like it belongs under the baseball category, but very little of the documentary is spent talking about baseball. Instead it’s a look back at the film and the making of the film with interviews from most of the cast and crew, as well as some modern day baseball players. An episode of Bravo channel’s “From Page to Screen” is the most informative piece and showcases the whole creative process of the movie, starting with the original novel, moving to the adaptation, and then the filming of the movie. With all the information passed to the audience in those two documentaries, one hardly needs the commentary track with the director and director of photography, which was taken from the previous edition of the film.

Among the rest of the extras, several deleted scenes are included, along with Robinson’s introduction to explain the context and reason for cutting each one. Most of them are short sequences that allowed Costner to hit another punchline. I’m fully supportive of any cuts that remove Costner from more screen time, and none of the scenes were necessary, so really they were nothing lost. “The Diamond in the Husks” shows the Field of Dreams today, still active and still something that people seek out and use for family bonding. It’s an interesting watch, if only to note that for the most part the people who are making a profit by the field’s existence didn’t seem to get the same message from the movie as everyone else. To at least one of them it’s just a baseball movie, showing the power of the almighty dollar is more powerful then mending relationships with family members. Last but not least is “Galena, Illinois pinch hits for Chisholm, Minnesota” in which a local historian for Galena, Illinois shows us around the city that was used in the movie for the Minnesota scenes.

This is a great DVD release with lots of extras and information. Unfortunately the movie isn’t the best base for the DVD, making some of the extras more interesting then the film itself. Maybe the luster of baseball has started to fade since the late 1980’s, or maybe Field of Dreams just doesn’t work for everyone, or just maybe it’s continuing proof that Kevin Costner should not have had the career he’s had.