Between Heaven and Iowa

Field of Dreams (1989)

Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams | Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The sky behind Ray Kinsella has just passed the tipping point when the magic hour gives way to dusk. The shots immediately prior—depicting an eerie discussion on the nature of heaven between Ray and the spirit of his father, who’s returned younger than Ray ever knew him to be—were aglow with the pink-orange haze so famously ephemeral that capturing it on film requires a miracle all its own. Whether you’re attuned to filmmaking craft or just familiar with the arc of the sun across the heavens, that glow tells you there’s only a moment or two of magic left, just enough time to grasp a handful before it slips away into the dark.

There’s a space of just under five seconds between Ray’s utterance of “Hey, dad” and the six words that unlock helpless tears in countless men of a certain age: “You want to have a catch?” In that space, that silence so thick with longing and regret, Ray seems to savor this opportunity to say those words he’d given up hoping he’d ever say again, the words he once refused to say, having imbued them with all his father’s oppressive hopes. Now they seem to stick in his throat, as though exhaling them might cause all the dreams unfolding on this field to evaporate.

There’s a precision to the way Kevin Costner sets his eyebrows, half-bunched in hope, and the way he holds the corner of his mouth, half-raised in suppressed yearning, that sketches in the strange thing happening against the chain-link backstop that Ray built based on the promise that he would come. In that expression, we see an adult reconfigured as a child asking for a moment of connection with his dad, asking for the brief, unbroken focus that’s required to pass a ball back and forth, exchanging something small that can mean exchanging something so much larger. In the soft focus of his gaze, Costner shows us a man seeing his own life superimposed onto itself, the uncanny vertiginous struggle to reconcile your existence as someone’s child with your existence as someone’s parent, the effort to locate your own life through triangulation between lives spent and lives just beginning to unfold. In the weight of urgent emotion and heartsick exhaustion pooled below his eyes, he shows us a man experiencing something none of us can ever hope for. But by bearing witness to this moment, maybe some among us could avoid one day envying the line between Heaven and Iowa that Ray has found some way to straddle.

Field of Dreams exerted a mystical allure long before I’d seen it. As I came to recognize that movies weren’t just something that I watched but something that I loved, I asked what my dad’s favorite was, hoping the space between his tastes and my own might help me understand where I was and how far I still had to go. I don’t remember how he described Field of Dreams, nor do I remember how I might have felt studying the box art of our VHS copy that depicted Ray posing casually before a nighttime sky magically punctured by a hole of sunlight. I just remember knowing with absolute certainty that this movie must be very important.

I wasn’t the type of kid who could ask my dad to have a catch, much though he tried to instill the habit. I tried too, and I remember the dizzying satisfaction of ball connecting with mitt, and the mild, pleasurable sting that radiated from my upper palm down to my shoulder blade. But I remember, too, throwing the ball wild more often than not, and compulsively shouting, “Sorry!” as he went to retrieve it, returning to tell me with mild, compassionate exasperation that I didn’t need to apologize, that it was all part of learning. I played one season when I was 13, staking out a spot deep in right field where I could be pleased with the thought I might be making him proud even as my stomach coiled in terror of a ball coming my way. But soon enough my interests asserted themselves and the glove went back onto the high shelf in the hall closet.

I wasn’t the type of kid who could happily accompany my dad into the city to visit Fenway Park, either, much though he tried to instill that thrill. I tried, too, but I would inevitably ask if we could go home early, or else bring a book to pass the time. I feel sorry when I look back, thinking perhaps I could have tried harder, but I know, too, that the distaste was all part of trying to find myself, even if that meant using the space between his loves and my own as the guide. What I did love about those trips was the threshold between the dim cement corridors below the grandstand and the electric-lit air of the loge boxes, that moment when the air opened up and the whole world seemed to rush in. Later, passing time in my seat, I would hold my hat over my face and pull it away, trying to harness some simulacrum of that thrill.

In Field of Dreams, I found the closest thing possible to recapturing that feeling. It comes during Ray’s pilgrimage to Boston, having been tasked—for reasons nobody, himself included, can understand—to bring reclusive author Terrence Mann to a Red Sox game. Ray and Mann each buy their “dog and a beer” while arguing over Mann’s responsibility to his own legacy, and then, in the space of a cut, the camera is in the grandstands surrounded by all the chattering and cheering, gazing down at that dozen or so small figures scattered across that great green expanse. Later I would find other dimensions to that feeling in other Kevin Costner baseball stories, from consensus masterpiece Bull Durham, that story with the lesson that “the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball,” to Sam Raimi’s maligned For Love of the Game, that story with the lesson that “if you give something your all it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you’ve risked everything, put everything out there.” 

And I’d find it, too, in other works by W.P. Kinsella, author of Field of Dreams’ source novel, who created a constellation of stories in which baseball can serve as the catalyst for magic’s intrusion into realism. In the world according to Kinsella, an ageless Roberto Clemente can wash up on a beach 15 years after his fatal plane crash, and a son can slip through a fissure in time to prove his father’s belief in a long-forgotten 2,000-inning game. An 80-year-old Kinsella was asked in 2015 where he first developed his interest in mixing baseball with the fantastic, and his answer was as simple as it was cryptic: “My dad talked a good game.” 

I’ve returned to Fenway countless times across the decades, most often with my dad, and I may still hardly know my ERAs from my RBIs, but thanks to these movies and others like them, I’ve come to love baseball not for how it’s played so much as what it is. These movies are the reason I once drove for days to attend the induction ceremony at the baseball hall of fame despite not knowing a thing about the players being honored. I went to experience the feeling of the crowd and remember, as I later wrote to a friend, that “no other sport has played such an intrinsic part in America’s past. The game is about more than itself.” Even as I may still barely understand the moment towards the end of Field of Dreams when Shoeless Joe tells Moonlight Graham that if “the first two were high and tight…look for low and away,” I’ve never failed to understand the moment just afterward—understand it on such an intuitive level that my heart thrums like a tuning fork—when Terrence Mann tells those assembled, “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again.”

During my first few viewings, I couldn’t quite connect with the final moments of Field of Dreams. I was too young, my viewpoint too limited, to empathize with what it meant for the camera to find Ray Kinsella halfway through a sentence, halfway through a plea, halfway through someone else’s memory that he’s somehow found a way to make real. I couldn’t understand why my dad—son of a damnably flawed man; grandson of a loving man who showed his love through baseball—was overcome watching the magic hour slip into dusk over Ray’s shoulder. But I understand it now, and more every time. 

Field of Dreams, as conventional wisdom goes, is a dad movie (“in many ways the ultimate dad movie,” as Kevin Clark wrote for The Ringer in 2019), but that term can be a strange one, weighted with the presumption of a dad monoculture imbued with boomer beliefs and ideals, one that centralizes the millennial perspective as the emergent child’s. And as my generation reckons with what it means to have been raised by a generation of men who largely rejected the toxic fatherhood that defined prior decades in the American home, it can be easy to cast a wry eye on their tastes, declaring them cute and cordoning them off from our own more eclectic and challenging preferences. Yet perhaps the term’s primary function is to quantify a relationship archetype that’s still so often colored by the emotional stoicism that so many men are conditioned to use as their primary mode of expression. “The world is big and weird and hard to sort through a lot of the time,” podcaster Alex Steed notes in his dads-on-film podcast, Why Are Dads? “And what is harder to decipher than our individual and collective relationships with our dads?” 

So we slap the label dad movie on stories about the CIA and the Battle of the Bulge, road races and whaling vessels, because this, at least, we can put a box around. If I know this, then maybe I can know where you meets me. Yet one truth is increasingly hard to ignore: by now, can we even say these are dad movies? Or are they slowly but surely becoming granddad movies? And how will it feel to have the term slapped onto my own taste by my own kids before too long? It’s enough to trigger some uncanny vertigo.

My own dad’s favorite movie is a boomer movie through and through. Field of Dreams is fascinated by the long tail of the ‘60s and panicked at the thought of the “peace love dope!” ideal (as Terrence Mann so eloquently bellows) being subsumed by the sociopathy of capitalism. Yet this movie exists simultaneously in the rarefied air of timeless dad cinema that relies less on ephemeral generational taste than on essential, eternal longings—for lost time regained, for petty cruelties absolved, for forgiveness not so much offered as rendered needless. It’s not a movie for dads, whomever that term might refer to in a given year. It’s a movie for anyone who’s ever had a primary caregiver and so experienced all the aching and compounding nostalgia that’s born into the world alongside each of us.

I don’t remember how my dad might have described Field of Dreams when I was young, what words he might have chosen that could have mystically captured my imagination, and as there’s no way to get that time back, I’ll have to make peace with not knowing. But now I have a way to fold time back on itself and capture the next best thing: a few weeks ago, I called him and asked him to describe Field of Dreams to my daughter.

“Well, a man who’s about your daddy’s age,” he told her, “wanted to build a baseball field in Iowa. He believed old-time baseball players who had died 30, 40, 50 years ago could come back all of a sudden and play baseball again, because these people loved playing baseball so, so much.” He didn’t breathe a word to her of Shoeless Joe’s disgrace, or Terrence Mann’s pain, or Moonlight Graham’s loss. Instead, he skipped ahead: “A bunch of baseball players come out of the cornfield, and they start playing baseball, and the most dramatic part is that one of the people who comes is the man’s father. And they start playing catch.”

It’s a lopsided summary that may misrepresent the 107-minute flow of Phil Alden Robinson’s masterpiece, yet perfectly captures its center of gravity. Every preceding thread funnels into that moment just after the magic hour: Shoeless Joe’s awe at reuniting with a piece of himself he’d thought was lost forever opens Ray up to the possibility of dismantling his own walls between what is and what could be; Terrence Mann’s reluctant acceptance of his place within the American narrative reminds Ray that the past can be integrated into the future without eternal grudge-match negotiation; Moonlight Graham’s grace in accepting a fallback plan he never anticipated liberates Ray from his terror of reaching the age at which he saw his own father overcome with regret. All of it coalesces to form a path towards that five seconds of throat-catching vertiginous possibility between two words and six more:

“Hey, dad.

[I miss you
I was wrong
I think I finally understand
I think I would have made you proud
I love you]

You want to have a catch?”