Field of Dreams (1989)

When it’s on: Sunday, 2 August (1.35 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

You’ll forgive me if this one is a little meandering (Reader’s voice ‘You don’t normally apologise for that‘), but I really love Field of Dreams and, as is often the case with favourite movies, some of the reasons are personal as well as because of the picture itself. For one thing, it’s a baseball film, linking the sport to wistful memories of more innocent and youthful times. I’m unsure how that works, not being American and frankly failing to see the appeal of what to me looks like glorified rounders, but then I don’t suppose the identity of the sport really matters. And when it comes to baseball, I call to mind Don DeLillo’s epic novel Underworld, with its nostalgia-fuelled opening chapter and the game’s purpose as a running theme. Here’s a quote from the book:

‘That’s the thing about baseball, Cotter. You do what they did before you. That’s the connection you make. There’s a whole long line. A man takes his kid to the game and thirty years later this is what they talk about when the poor old mutt’s wasting away in the hospital.’

Very evocative, possibly true, and really I can picture this being the case with my ‘old man’ and me someday, not discussing some ancient baseball game but possibly the first Middlesbrough match we took in together (a 6-0 win over Leicester City, since you’re wondering, and no, it never got close to being as good again). For baseball read football, or indeed any sport of your preference, I guess. I even get the point about simpler times made by the film. In Field of Dreams, the baseball diamond built by Kevin Costner’s character ends up showcasing great players from the past, notably ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and the seven other White Sox members banned from the sport in light of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Shoeless Joe (Ray Liotta) reveals that not only was the ban an injustice (it was; the players were acquitted in court but the ban was upheld by the League’s commissioner) but the money and fame meant nothing. All he and his compatriots wanted was to play, to experience the food smells from the stands, the touch of the grass, the joie de vivre of just being out there. It’s an uncynical statement that’s supposed to evoke memories of a time in baseball before the money involved became too great, the sponsorship and TV rights dictating everything and thereby robbing us of the simple pleasure of enjoying the sport. It’s impossible not to see a similar sentiment among football fans, the era before the Premiership came into being and Britain’s national game fell into the pocket of Sky’s cash-rich owners. One of my best memories of that game against Leicester was that the home team discovered its scoring touch. Each goal provoked a mass celebration in the stands, notably the Holgate End at Ayresome Park, which was just a big terrace. The crowd would surge forward, a big wave of humanity crashing into each other, and it was exhilarating with a slight element of danger. That has gone, as has Ayresome. Middlesbrough’s current ground, the Riverside, is an all-seater stadium. You’re pretty much told when you’re allowed to stand up, piped in music punctuating every goal. Something’s been lost. The spontaneity, I think.

So perhaps something has gone from the game, and whilst it’s a more exciting sport to watch the connection we felt with the players from the past is not there much now. The film closes with cars snaking to the Kinsella farm, lured on by the promise of experiencing some magic from the past, which watching old baseball players will evoke. It’s a nice message, reminiscent of old Frank Capra pictures in many ways by using fantasy elements to conjure a sentimental resolution, and there’s nothing wrong with that. One of the things I really like about Field of Dreams is its blank refusal to explain why the events in it unfold. Whose is the voice? Who tells Ray (Costner) to build his baseball field? Why rope in long lost 1960s author, Terence Mann (James Earl Jones), along with a Doctor from some Minnesota backwater, Archibald Graham (Burt Lancaster)? The answers are elusive and up to the viewer’s interpretation, and I rather like that. We understand why Ray receives the message; he’s the sort of uncomplicated fellow who grew up in the sixties and is just about willing enough to go along with the crazy plan, despite the misgivings of his fellow corn farmers and with unresolved father issues to deal with, and the field will give him that opportunity eventually.

The cast in Field of Dreams is universally fantastic. Any fan of Star Wars is automatically a worshipper at the altar of Jones and this is almost certainly his career best performance, drawing out all the world weariness of his character’s retreat from the glory years, and then having this stripped away as he joins Ray’s quest to meet the field’s ‘demands’. Mann is presented as a complex man, but one who’s in touch with the potential of baseball as a unifying influence. Lancaster was talked into taking the part of Doc Graham (his last movie role) and plays it wonderfully. Aged 76 and cast beautifully as the Doctor at the end of his practising days, there’s a glint in his eye that hints at his mental acceptance of the fantastic story Ray’s telling him, which is consistent with the appearance of his younger self (Frank Whaley) as a callow rookie to play with the big boys and show the potential he never realised in actuality. Graham’s character is a great sop to those of us who’ve come close to achieving our dreams, but only close. The field can make them come true.

Amy Madigan floods her underused character with bags of fiery personality, and I also like Timothy Busfield as her brother, the closest Field of Dreams comes to in providing a villain as the voice of reason, warning constantly of the financial risks involved in tearing down valuable crops for a ‘useless’ baseball diamond. But the film lives or dies with Kevin Costner, at the time on his way to becoming a big star with Dances with Wolves a year away and the likes of No Way Out and The Untouchables showcasing his talent at playing clean shaven good guys. Costner was reluctant to accept the part of Ray as he’d recently made a baseball film, Bull Durham, but saw the potential of Field of Dreams to be ‘this generation’s It’s a Wonderful Life‘ and indeed brings an easy-going charm reminiscent of James Stewart to the part. In his mid-thirties, Costner was just right – old enough to know better, fanciful enough to pretty much go for it.

I realise I haven’t said a lot about the film and what happens in it. My feeling is that it’s better to approach it fresh, soaking up the story as weaved by director Phil Alden Robinson and going with the flow. Robinson saw Field of Dreams very much as a pet project, a labour of love, spending several years working on it before it came to life, and he ensures that its events move along at a fair lick so that you don’t have time to question the film’s logic as it jogs on to the next plot point. It doesn’t do to think about it too much, rather viewers are encouraged to just enjoy it, the sense of idealism and wonder that it carries. There aren’t many films made that contain the latter. We’re a jaded bunch and want our fantasy to come with hard-bitten truths. But sometimes, a movie comes along that’s just nice, wears its heart on its sleeve and asks us to take a journey. ‘Wonderful’ sums it up rather nicely, I think.

Field of Dreams: ****

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

When it’s on: Saturday, 18 July (10.15 am)
Channel: More4
IMDb Link

I once read a Tom Clancy novel, back when his works were seen as the quintessential fiction for men. It was a struggle. I’d never known that it was possible to talk about the features of some military hardware for several pages, but Clancy did it, loads, and the book, Clear and Present Danger, could not be finished too quickly.

It’s therefore fortunate that the film adaptations, all five Jack Ryan stories, have thrown out much of the ‘technoporn’ and focused instead on the thriller element of these tales. The first, 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, may be the best of the bunch, a taut yarn about Cold War politics that drips with tension and handles swathes of plot and characterisation deftly.

The film was directed by John McTiernan, at the time coming off two considerable successes in Predator and Die Hard, the latter considered a high watermark in high concept action cinema. One of the things that made it work so well was that McTiernan took time to develop its story, introducing the characters and giving them motivation, before letting the gun play, stunts and fighting take over, making us care about what was happening and appreciating the stakes involved. It was fine grounding for The Hunt for Red October, a film that depends upon considerable amounts of setting up.

It stars Alec Baldwin as Ryan, a young CIA analyst who, in 1984, unconvers the significance of a newly developed Russian nuclear submarine, that it can move through the oceans more or less silently and therefore has the capacity to ‘sneak up’ on America. Handily, Ryan also knows all about the boat’s captain, Marko Ramius, a longstanding and respected seaman within the Soviet hierarchy who he believes is about to defect rather than attack. He’s right. The plot focus on his efforts to communicate with Ramius before the presence of Red October in a threatening position pre-empts hostilities between the superpowers.

Ramius is played by Sean Connery, by now the Academy Award winning actor who was entering a potentially interesting phase in his career playing older characters. Connery was famous enough to not even attempt a Russian accent, playing the only Scottish Lithuanian in celluloid history whilst the likes of Sam Neill as members of his crew work on their Slavic. Even if he had no time for perfecting dialects, Connery got by on sheer charisma, effortlessly essaying Ramius as a great captain audacious enough to pull off his desperate defection. He even let the Soviet High Command know of his intentions, prompting a sea chase across the North Atlantic in which every available Russian vessel attempts to smoke out the Red October.

Also in the mix is the Dallas, an American submarine commanded by Scott Glenn that realises something is happening and pursues what turns out to Red October, making it the unlikely place for Ryan to join in his efforts to reach out to Ramius. The main threat comes from Stellan Skarsgard’s Russian sub, the Konovalov, which also gives chase and does most of the firing.

The one thing that really lets the film down are the underwater action scenes. Murky shots of submarines floating through the depths appear as gloomy submerged turds, whilst the missiles and countermeasures deployed make use of early CGI, which these days appears to be rather primitive. These scenes are mercifully sparing. More time is spent on the decks, especially Ramius’s, a wonderland of dials and flashing lights that is apparently far more interesting than what these things really look like. At the centre of it all is Connery, spouting the wisdom of his many years in service and outwitting his adversaries. There are a couple of great moments when Red October is being fired upon, the closeness of the torpedoes defined by beeping that gets intermittently more frequent as it approaches, while Ramius uses his experience and wiliness to overcome them.

Both Connery and Baldwin play characters who think laterally, beating those around them in terms of their ingenuity and resourcefulness. For long swathes of red October, Ryan is on the right track about Ramius and nobody believes him, because the way he sees things is completely unprecedented but the idea is that only he and the Russian think so far outside the box and are therefore kindred spirits of a sort. Both are at their best in the cramped surroundings of their submarines, thin corridors and claustrophobia adding to the suspense of their situation. Their story is only marginally better than the fun diplomacy conducted in Washington, Richard Jordan and Joss Ackland’s Russian attache exchanging witty barbs as they attempt to get the better of each other and demonstrating the sort of edgy affection that you’d get from old adversaries. And then there’s James Earl Jones as Ryan’s superior, Admiral Greer. Baldwin only starred in one Jack Ryan film but Jones’s services were retained, that deep sonorous voice matched by a wry, larger than life presence that strikes a note of authenticity within the corridors of supreme military personnel.

A Cold War film made in 1990 might sound like it’s missed the boat somewhat, with Glasnost in the air and the relations between America and Russia changed forever. And really, a movie that features few action scenes and runs for longer than two hours sounds a bit of a stretch. But it’s tense, really tense, the stakes high and escalating all along as everyone involved knows and makes clear what’s involved and the potential consequences if they misstep. I like the bits where Red October is damaged, the consequence of a saboteur being on board; at these moments, the essential fragility of being deep beneath the ocean inside a tin can is palpable.

I don’t really know which of the two great submarine-based thrillers of the 1990s I prefer – this, or Crimson Tide, which came out five years down the line. Both feature great supporting casts and two excellent lead actors. I certainly can’t recall Baldwin being better than he is here, a great star making turn hinting at the sort of future greatness that he never quite realised. I also really like Neill’s character, the very loyal second in command who obeys Ramius slavishly, defends him to other crew members when the captain appears to be defying all logic, and getting a great scene when he reveals to Ramius that he’s looking forward to living in Montana. It features some lovely cinematography from future director Jan de Bont, who keeps his camera tilted to film the characters at askew angles and emphasise the tension, also the sense of being closed in. Good stuff.

The Hunt for Red October: ****