People often assume that, because I love sports and because I love movies, I must love sports movies. In actuality, I often find myself being more critical and giving less leeway for sports-related movies than I do for just about any other genre of film. I'll suspend reality when Will Smith is able to pilot an alien spacecraft within minutes of its discovery but a quarterback throwing 10 touchdowns in a game? That's just ridiculous. I'm too close to sports, too knowledgeable (that's not a brag so much as an indication of the insane amount of time I have spent obsessing over sport in what could only be described as the coolest 31 years anyone has ever spent on this planet) to accept movie magic or jumps in logic when it comes to the sports arena. I don't know, maybe police officers hate cop movies that deliver far too many shootouts and far too few citation write ups. Regardless, sports in movies doesn't often work for me. But this week, Field of Dreams celebrated its 25th anniversary and it felt only fitting to say a few words about the film that is, for my money, the best sports movie of all-time.
In my opinion, there are four ways a sports movie can succeed:
1.) Go straight for the laughs - Comedy covers up a multitude of sins because. Is Talladega Nights an accurate portrayal of the world of NASCAR? Of course not. But it's hilarious (depending on your opinion of Will Ferrell, that is) and because it doesn't take its sport too seriously, the audience doesn't have to, either. Happy Gilmore, Slap Shot, and many others take advantage of this caveat.
2.) Aim for the kids - Just as comedy allows for the deflection of reality, so does the kiddie element. Rookie of the Year is one of the most ridiculous movies of all time but I watched it 100 million times as a kid and it still holds a great deal of nostalgic, happy fun for me despite its absurdity.
3.) Strives for reality - This is by far the most difficult path to take, I think, but if a sports movie can find a way to stick as close to reality as possible, it has the possibility for greatness. The Friday Night Lights movie is one of the most genuine, gut-wrenching sports movies ever and remains one of the best. Aim for this territory and miss the mark, however, and you wind up with a mediocre biopic (see: Glory Road) or a disastrous grasping at a false reality (see: Any Given Sunday).
4.) Tell a worthwhile story outside of sports - This is where most sports movies live or die. The theory goes that you can't make a sports movie that is just about sports so other elements, usually a romantic relationship, have to be added in to make it marketable. More often than not, the handling of these additions to the sporting nature of the film determines whether or not the movie works.
And that's where Field of Dreams succeeds where so many other films fail.
Field of Dreams is a sports movie more in theory than in actuality. Sure, the central plot concerns a farmer who decides to build a baseball field in the middle of his cash crops and yes, there's a fair amount of time dedicated to the history of the 1919 Black Sox scandal. But these are shiny diversions from the themes the movie really wants to explore in depth. Faith, loss, hope, pain, and a handful of other important parts of the human experience all have a place within Field of Dreams and above them all sits the ever-complicated father-son relationship. The movie handles these themes not with kid gloves or false sentimentality but with exquisite grace and authenticity while blending them seamlessly with the baseball undertones. That's not to say that the film doesn't respect its sporting roots; baseball is the glue that holds Field of Dreams together and I've always felt this movie understood its sports setting better than almost any sports-related movie even if the actual baseball action is lacking. But the goal of Field of Dreams is to tell an important, common, wholly human story and baseball is the just medium through which this story is told.
It had been years since I watched Field of Dreams and at least days since I had wept like a small child whose favorite toy had just been burned like something out of The Velveteen Rabbit so with the anniversary looming last weekend, I popped it in and marveled at its greatness. I love everything about this movie. I love Kevin Coster's narration. The Untouchables may have made Costner a star but it is Field of Dreams that solidified him into that status. I love the fantasy/mystical nature of The Voice and the ghost baseball players. I can't imagine that anyone involved in the making of this film thought that 25 years later, people would still be saying, "If you build it, he will come" to one another. I love the way James Earl Jones' Terrence Mann says "Baseball" in the iconic speech he delivers toward the film's conclusion. There's this endearing respect for the game that just oozes through his pronunciation of that word. I love Shoeless Joe Jackson's affirmation of Moonlight Graham, a struggling Minor Leaguer who never got a chance to bat in the majors. "You were good" may not be the most memorable line of this film but that simple affirmation is no less powerful in its impact.
And I love the supremely subtle build up to the moment of revelation that this entire movie has been leading us to a reconciliation between Ray Kinsella and the father he walked away from years before. "You wanna have a catch?" is one of the most simple-but-powerful quotes in film history and many times has served to reduce me and millions of other men into an ugly mess of tears and snot. It's one of the few standalone moments in film history that even the toughest guy is allowed to bawl over because we all get it. Watching Field of Dreams is like getting a free pass to access your deepest emotions and let them all out without any judgment from those around you because they, too, are weeping like (ugly) babies.
All of this, and a dozen or so other reasons, makes Field of Dreams an American classic. 25 years later, while some of its fantastical nature plays a bit hokey and there are scenes that work a little more heavy handed than they once did, its heart still beats strong and it should serve as the blueprint for how to make a sports movie that works correctly.
Here's to 25 more years of Field of Dreams and 25 less years of Draft Day, Brian
Note: I didn't write a review for Draft Day because it is BRUTALLY bad. However, the Mad About Movies podcast on the movie was spectacular and includes me actually yelling into the microphone because I got so worked up. Check it out and tell a friend.