“Field of Dreams” is absolutely terrible

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I first saw “Field of Dreams” when it came out in the spring of 1989. I hated it. I saw it again about 15 years ago but nothing had changed. Still hated it.

In the ensuing years I began to talk about my hatred of the movie on Twitter and in articles around here based on those viewings of it. At first I did so because a baseball writer is obliged, at some point, to weigh in on baseball movies, but I continued to do so because I quickly learned how contrary an opinion it was.

Most “best of” lists with respect to baseball movies rank “Field of Dreams” at or near the top. Beyond the critics, most baseball fans you talk to will sing its praises as well. They will invariably talk about how it “gets me every time,” or how it’s a real tear-jerker. Go on any social media platform and suggest, even mildly, that “Field of Dreams” is less-than-great and people will crawl out of the woodwork to tell you that you have no soul. I kept slamming it because I like to be contrary and because I know it gets people wound up.

But I recently began to wonder if I have been unfair to “Field of Dreams.” I was not quite 16 when I first saw it and 16 year-old boys hate everything with even an ounce of feeling in it. On that second viewing I had not yet lived much of an adult life, so maybe I was missing the themes the movie most passionately addressed. The pain of loss. The regret one has for things said and unsaid and the realization that you can’t turn back the clock to do the things you wish you had done or to undo the things you did and wish you hadn’t.

I’m in my 40s now. I have children. I have, unfortunately, suffered loss. There are a lot of movies I hated as a kid or as a young man that I admire or even love now by virtue of the new eyes only the passage of time can bestow, so maybe it was time to give “Field of Dreams” a fresh look to see if I had missed something. Or if I had simply been unable or unwilling to listen to what it was trying to tell me. Last night I did so.

Sorry, it’s still terrible. Indeed, it’s even worse than I had remembered it being. It’s not just bad, it’s aggressively bad, bordering on insulting.

This has very little to do with the nitpicks baseball fans often make when it comes to “Field of Dreams.” It’s annoying that the filmmakers seemed to care so little for detail, but I can get past the idea that, in their conception of baseball, Shoeless Joe Jackson was a right-handed Italian-American with a slight New York accent instead of a lefty from rural South Carolina. I can get past the fact that John Kinsella, who was supposed to be in his 50s when his son was born, looks to be about 25 in the family picture during the opening montage. I can get past the idea that, somehow, the sun both sets and rises over left field in that ballpark in the corn. I can get past the idea that 2-3 acres of plowed-under crops can somehow bankrupt even a small family farm which is frankly preposterous, economically speaking.

There is a boatload of that kind of nonsense in “Field of Dreams,” but I can let that stuff go in any movie if the story it is trying to tell is a good one and if it tells that story well. The problem here is that “Field of Dreams” does a horrible job of telling the story it wants to tell. And, to be honest, the story it wants to tell is a pretty terrible one once you dig even an inch below the surface.

You know the big emotional arc here: Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella, a Baby Boomer who came of age in the 60s, didn’t get along with his much-older, baseball-loving father, John. Their failure to see eye-to-eye while, presumably, all-encompassing, played out through baseball, with Ray rejecting the sport his father loved and then twisting the knife by calling his father’s hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, a criminal, after which they never spoke. A voice tells Ray to build the baseball field in the corn and the forces of magical realism do the rest: Jackson and the other ballplayers appear and, eventually, so too does a young John Kinsella, allowing for a long-denied rapprochement between father and son. Along the way a wish is granted to a man who never got a chance to bat in the big leagues and hope and optimism is restored to a writer who had lost his love for and faith in the world.

Which is all fine if you don’t think about if for more than half a second. If you do think about it, however, you start to realize that the filmmakers do almost nothing to give any substance to Ray and John’s relationship. Nearly the entire weight of baseball fandom’s love for this movie is based on this father-son-dynamic — indeed, anyone who passionately advocates for this movie, always a man, will reference their own father within the first 30 seconds — but it does nothing to actually show us the conflict or to convince us that it’s real. We’re never told what, besides baseball, they disagreed on. It’s dashed off in a couple of lines of dialogue here and there with references to fairly common generational differences and a bit of bickering over a hobby.

John’s wife and Ray’s mother is killed off when Ray was a baby in the opening montage and is never spoken of again. I’d suspect that the loss of a wife and mother looms a bit larger in a father and son’s life than baseball, so maybe at least a word about how her absence and their grief impacted all of this is in order? Beyond that, we know that Ray rejected John’s passion — baseball — but what things which were important to Ray did John reject or fail to respect? We have no idea, of course, because the movie presents this as a one-sided lack of respect showed by Ray toward his father, communicated only through baseball and resolved via a game of catch. If you had your own legitimate, complex and unresolved issues with your late father, I suspect this is all rather insulting. If you’re someone who got on well with your dad and actually communicated with him in a healthy manner, this wholly un-sketched conflict is sort of a problem given that a filmmaker is in the business of telling a story.

Here, I suspect, the filmmakers assumed that everyone must have some minor daddy issues someplace, that no one really wants to dig into them and that it was best to allow our natural hesitance to engage with difficult feelings and our love of projecting our problems onto other people to do all of the heavy lifting. “You don’t like ‘Field of Dreams’ because you never played catch with your dad!” is a common refrain one hears from defenders of the movie. My response: “This movie is not about you and your dad. It’s about Ray and John Kinsella, and they are total ciphers about whom it’s nearly impossible to care because the filmmakers decided their story wasn’t really worth telling.”

It’s not that the filmmakers lazily mailed in the father-son story, however, relying on you to bring your own baggage into the the theater in order to provide any dramatic heft. They just had a story they wanted to tell more. A story about how a parent’s values are more important than their children’s, how youthful idealism is a sin and how 1960s-style progressivism must be repudiated and repented for.

As Ray and the writer Terrance Mann are driving back to Iowa after Ray’s first encounter with Moonlight Graham, Ray tells Terrance about the fight he and his dad had about Shoeless Joe Jackson. Terrance, after taking it all in, tells Ray that this whole business — the field and their travels — is Ray’s penance. That’s the word he uses, “penance.” The literal repentance of sin. What was Ray’s sin, exactly?

He, like a lot of teenagers, didn’t see eye-to-eye with his father, but he led a good life. He was a good enough student that he got into a good college. Once there he wasn’t in The Weather Underground and didn’t sell drugs and funnel the money to the Black Panthers or anything. He became something of a mild and amiable hippie, fell in love with a good woman, had a sweet kid and started farming. The alpha-and-omega of Ray’s “sin” was that he insulted a long-dead baseball player his dad had liked 50 years earlier.

Even if you extrapolate a bit more broadly and say that it’s about a son not accepting his father’s values, “Field of Dreams” is all about the elevation of an old man’s dreams over those of the young, which it considers silly. There is no suggestion whatsoever that John Kinsella, in life or in his new afterlife, was obligated to even consider Ray’s values or the things he loved. Ray — who was living a seemingly happy and contented life when the movie began — plows under his farm, repudiates everything he stood for from his teens until one summer evening in 1987 and risks his family’s financial security as an apology for wanting to be his own person and not the one his old man wanted him to be.

That 1960s idealism he adopted? It’s mocked, mostly. Ray’s wife Annie has a big moment standing up against the PTA moms who want to ban some books, but she is portrayed as a simplistic and unhinged caricature of a 1960s radical during that scene. As soon as it’s over she’s super excited — this may have been the first time in years that her old youthful, activist fire had been lit — and she wants to revel in it with her husband. He immediately cuts her off, though, changing the subject to the voice he heard and having to drive to Boston and find Terrance Mann. So much for all of that.

Mann himself is used to undermine idealism. He’s portrayed as a writer who was at the vanguard of progressive thought in the 1960s but, by the end of the movie, he’s giving heartfelt speeches about how disillusioned Americans would gladly pay $20 a pop to deny the present and revel in nostalgia for just a little while and how utterly important and restorative it would be for them to do that. As my friend Steven Goldman pointed out a couple of years ago, Mann does all of this without even noting that the game he characterizes as “healing waters” is, as it is being played out before him, in its pre-integration form. Call me crazy, but I feel like a black, progressive writer who cited Jackie Robinson as his hero earlier in the movie may have made at least passing reference to that.

Taken all together, the message is pretty clear:

  • Kids have an obligation to please their parents but parents have no obligation to allow their kids to find their own path in life;
  • The fixations of a young man in 1919 are super important and must be honored, even if it literally requires moving heaven and earth;
  • The fixations of a young man — or an older writer — in 1969 were silly and can and should be repudiated, apologized for and, in some cases, repented for;
  • No matter how bad things get, they can best be fixed by looking backward in time and, if necessary, retreating into the past. Oh, and if we can make $20 a pop off of others doing the same, all the better.

How uplifting.

“Field of Dreams” was made in 1988 and released in 1989. It was a time when, for the better part of a decade, pre-1960s values had been anachronistically recalled and religiously revered and idealism and progressivism were considered a punchline. It’s a movie that could’ve been made by a Ministry of Information for the Reagan Administration if such a thing had existed. Now, nearly 28 years later, it’s a monument to nearly the exact moment the Baby Boomers decided to chuck what remained of their youthful values and make sure that they got theirs before they got too old to go get it. They’ll come, Ray, they’ll pay you $20 a pop, you’ll get rich, your dead dad will be happy with you once again and isn’t that all that really matters?

If you’ve read even a part of what I’ve written around here in the past eight years, you know that I prefer to look forward and not backward and that most of what I find to be wrong with baseball analysis and commentary is a function of people doing way too much of the latter and nowhere near enough of the former. Against that backdrop, “Field of Dreams” is the cinematic equivalent of some old baseball writer lecturing us about “The Golden Age” and telling us that Mike Trout couldn’t carry Mickey Mantle’s jockstrap. It’s a call to look backward, not forward, and to allow sentiment, emotion and nostalgia trump reason and present experience. I don’t care how much it manipulatively pulls on your heartstrings, it’s a worthless and useless message to send. And a cynical one at that.

And forget what I said earlier: Shoeless Joe Jackson was a lefty. If you make a baseball movie and you show him batting right-handed, you don’t deserve to rank anywhere on a “best-of” baseball movie list. That’s just poor and the people who made this movie should feel bad.

Sports teams do not “heal” cities or nations

Associated Press
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Bob Nightengale of USA Today has a story today in which he talks to Cleon Jones, Ken Harrelson, Art Shamsky and others from the 1969 Mets about their Amazin’ World Series title run. The story is tied to the upcoming commemorations of the 50th anniversary of that phenomenally unexpected and improbable season.

And that’s fine as far as it goes, but as so often is the case with nostalgic remembrances, it goes too far:

They will gather together in New York later in June, rehashing stories from 50 years ago, reminiscing about the year they turned the baseball world upside down, becoming perhaps the most beloved team in history.

The 1969 Mets.

The team that helped revitalize a city in ruins and heal a nation in turmoil, showing the world you can turn the inconceivable to the improbable to the possible to the incredible, in a way only sports can possibly do.

Now would be a good time to remember that the city the Mets allegedly revitalized found itself on the brink of bankruptcy in the early-to-mid-70s and experienced urban decay and spiking crime rates for the next 20+ years. It would also be a good time to remember that the nation the Mets allegedly healed witnessed the Kent State shootings a few months later, among other bits of strife for the next, oh, 50 years and counting.

Yes, I am being flip and superficial here, but I do so simply to illustrate how flip and superficial “[Sports Team] healed [City/Nation]” narratives invariably are.

We see these sorts of things whenever a team from a down-on-its-luck place has a title run. Detroit. Cleveland. New Orleans. The idea is generally a broad-brush paint job in which the source of strife — poverty, crime, economic strife, natural disaster, terrorism, etc. —  is detailed with the local sports team’s subsequent title run cast as a spiritual balm. The words “heal” and “uplift” are pretty common in these stories. Back in 2002 I wrote about a classic of the genre, a documentary about the 1968 Detroit Tigers, who allegedly healed Detroit following he 1967 riots. Anyone familiar with Detroit from 1968-on may understand that the claims of healing asserted therein were . . . somewhat overstated.

Whatever the details, most of these narratives have the same sorts of flaws. At best they overstate the significance of sports in society, presuming that happiness among ticket-buying sports fans — who are usually better off than your average city resident who may be the one in need of healing — means broad-based happiness among the populace. More commonly they simply ignore the actual city or society beyond anything but its most superficial markers. The pattern:

  • Montage of the strife in whatever its form (bonus if it’s from the 1960s and you can re-use some existing “turbulent 60s” b-roll;
  • A chronicling of the sports team’s run; and
  • A declaration that everything was better after that.

It’s not even a matter of correlation and causation being confused. There’s very rarely ever any evidence presented that the sports made the underlying problems any better. All one usually gets from these things is a sense that, at least to the sports commentator/documentarian telling the story and to the people who closely followed the sports team, things were good. Unless, of course, I missed the part about how LeBron James solved Cleveland’s declining population problems and how the 2010 New Orleans Saints solved the ongoing mental, economic and medical trauma of those displaced by Katrina.

Which is not to say that sports mean nothing in this context. Sports success can certainly make a lot of people happy, even people hit hard by adversity, temporarily speaking. People only tangentially-connected to the strife in question may, also, decide that a sporting event “healed” a city. For example, if something bad happened in your city but didn’t affect you directly, you may believe that the trophy-hoisting put a nice bookend on the trauma that was more directly felt by others. And, of course, individuals directly connected with the sporting events in question, like Cleon Jones in the Mets piece, can experience a more lasting change in their lives as a result of this sort of success that they might see as general uplift.

That’s not the same thing as healing, though. Because while you or I can close that chapter on it all when the game is over, survivors of traumatic events and victims of systematic oppression or chronic strife cannot and do not do so that easily. There were people still hurting in Detroit after 1968, in New York (and the nation) after 1969, in New Orleans after the Saints won the Super Bowl, and in Cleveland after the Cavs won their title. The very best that can be said of sports triumph amid civic adversity is that it’s a pleasant, albeit temporary distraction. But not everyone had the luxury of enjoying that temporary distraction and a distraction is not the same thing as a cure.

Why do sports writers and commentators do this? I suppose it’s a function of people believing that the world in which they operate is, well, the world. The entertainment writer sees everything as a Hollywood story, the political writer sees everything as a Washington story and the sports writer sees everything as a sports story. It’s an understandable loss of perspective and we all fall prey to it sometimes.

It’d be better, though, if we spent more time appreciating that our perspective on the world is not the only one. I won’t speak for the entertainment or political people, and I won’t speak for the way in which any other person may prioritize the world as they observe it. But in my world — sports — I think it’d be better if we did not ascribe outsized significance to the beat we cover. Doing so asks far more of sports than sports is capable of delivering and erases the ongoing pain and suffering of people for whom sports is no sort of cure.