My year of bests finds me writing this on opening day of the 2023 baseball season, so it only seems fitting to take a look at my top-rated baseball movie of all time. Baseball and boxing have by far the most quality films of any sport. However, the top among baseball films for me is Field of Dreams (1989, dir. Phil Alden Robinson).
Field of Dreams is the story of Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner), a farmer in Iowa who plows much of his crop in order to build a baseball field because a voice told him to. Or rather, a voice told him, “If you build it, he will come.” Kinsella interprets that to mean that if he builds a baseball field, Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) will be able to come back and play baseball again. The voice has more messages for Kinsella throughout the film, saying “ease his pain” and “go the distance” which brings 1960s writer/activist Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) and Archibald “Moonlight” Graham” (Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley) into the mix. Meanwhile, Ray’s wife Annie (Amy Madigan) tries to keep things going as the bills pile up and Ray chases this fantasy.
That synopsis should not work. It completely lacks believability. That is the point. At its core, Field of Dreams is a fantasy movie – dealing with things we wish were true and revolving around things over which we wish we had more control. Surrendering to that fantasy is most of what makes this film so good. The rest of it comes from two places. First, a love of the golden age of baseball. Yes, it does romanticize the 1919 Chicago White Sox team that was infamous for throwing the World Series that year and being forever banned from baseball. But it also lets you reminisce about a time when the game was different and, arguably, much better. The second way the film completes its hold over me (and likely many men of a certain age) is the father-son component. Since the film came out over 30 years ago, you likely know that the voice was never referring to Shoeless Joe but to Ray’s father John Kinsella, himself a former professional baseball player and absentee father to Ray – giving Ray and John a chance to connect in a mystical way to have that magical father-son game of catch they never had in real life.
Costner delivers what would become his hallmark “every man” performance. Never a favorite of mine, he is undeniably great when asked to be just some guy, as he is here. Jones delivers a fantastic monologue about baseball (one that any Royals baseball watcher could no doubt recite from memory after last season hearing it in every single commercial break) and a great overall performance. Madigan and Lancaster are the true standouts, though, as each captures the magic coupled with the desperation of the moment as needed.
It is almost cheating to even count Field of Dreams as a baseball film. It absolutely centers completely around baseball, and every bit of action derives some connection to the sport. However, baseball is merely the backdrop for a story of self-discovery, commitment, and belief in the otherworldly. It proves that, if you make a fantastic film, people will come.
FUN FACT – Beginning in 2021, Major League Baseball has held an annual game at the field used in the film. The first year featured the White Sox winning a thriller against the Yankees and involved the players (and Costner) emerging from the cornfield as in the film.
Just Watch says that Field of Dreams is currently streaming on Starz and DirecTV. It is also available to rent or buy on most platforms, including AppleTV, Redbox, and Amazon Prime.