In the '90s, Costner's messianic ambitions - his belief that his aw-shucks Everyman demanded an epic canvas to match his bank account - produced some of the worst films ever made. But his attitude works perfectly in 1989's Field of Dreams (based on the book Shoeless Joe) because the setting is appropriately modest; if we could never buy him as a post-apocalyptic savior, he's just fine as a middle-class hero. Costner plays Ray Kinsella, a rat-race refugee who's moved his wife Anni (Amy Madigan) and daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann) to a farmhouse in Iowa. One evening, alone amongst the corn, Ray hears a voice tell him, "If you build it, they will come." A vision of a baseball field is presented before him, and he immediately sets to work re-creating it, believing that it might help him better understand his late father, from whom he was long estranged.
A born baseball obsessive, this is Ray's sweetest fantasy made real, and director Philip Alden Robinson is careful to give this all to us gently, with lots of summer-twilight orange light and lilting humor. And then Shoeless Joe (Ray Liotta), the disgraced Chicago White Sox player, arrives on the field, curious about this new place but clearly feeling at home. It prompts the pitch-perfect exchange between Joe and Ray that's now the movie's hallmark: "Is this heaven?" "No, it's Iowa."
Of course, everyone else thinks Ray's gone barking mad - his quixotic actions have threatened both his goodwill and livelihood. But Ray persists, and his energy lifts the film as he crosses the country, bringing two great cameo appearances into the film. As the aging Dr. Archie "Moonlight" Graham - who in his youth played precisely half an inning of pro ball - Burt Lancaster acts with sweetness and precision, like a Norman Rockwell painting made real. But it's James Earl Jones, as the J.D. Salinger-esque '60s author Terence Mann, who gives the movie the final push into believability and poetry that it needs. It's also his finest moment as an actor; his penultimate speech about the enduring power of baseball is so heart-bustingly inspirational that Ken Burns needed a 19-hour documentary to match its spirit. (Though Burns made room for Negro League players, which Field of Dreams embarassingly doesn't.)
Field of Dreams, despite a script with Capra-like levels of Old Fashioned American Goodness, is one of the most daring Hollywood films of the '80s. It asks us to suspend our disbelief more than any movie that doesn't feature lasers and robots, builds its plot around an esoteric era of sports history most people care nothing about, and suggests that a man who befriends ghosts and endangers his family is a hero. But sinuously, these plot threads wend their way through the film, sensibly and believably, so that when we're hit with a double-whammy of tear-jerking plot twists, we don't feel manipulated or bullied into responding. It holds up a mirror to our own dreaming, sounds back the hopeful voices in our heads, and makes it all feel right and perfect. It's the sort of thing that Hollywood promises to give us every week but, too often, fails to deliver.
Run time: 107 mins
In Theaters: Friday 5th May 1989
Box Office Worldwide: $84.4M
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: Universal Studios
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 87%
Fresh: 47 Rotten: 7
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Screenwriter: Phil Alden Robinson
Starring: Kevin Costner as Ray Kinsella, James Earl Jones as Terrence Mann, Amy Madigan as Annie Kinsella, Timothy Busfield as Mark, Ray Liotta as "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Burt Lancaster as Doc "Moonlight" Graham, Frank Whaley as Archie Graham, Dwier Brown as John Kinsella, Lee Garlington as Beulah Gasnick, Gaby Hoffmann as Karin Kinsella, Kelly Coffield Park as Dee, Mark's Wife, Michael Milhoan as Buck Weaver, Art LaFleur as Chick Gandil, Mike Nussbaum as Principal, Larry Brandenburg as PTA Heckler