This is part 8 in a series in which, for reasons not really clear, I watch all watchable movies with Kevin Costner. And maybe even some unwatchable ones. I will then comment on them here for you, including a synopsis in case you aren't familiar with them.
Synopsis: Ray (Kevin Costner) is an amateur farmer in Iowa who, out in the fields, hears a voice telling him to "build it" and that "he will come". Ray is instinctively sure that he's supposed to build a baseball field and that Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta), who died in 1951, will then come. He does so, and indeed, Jackson's ghost appears. This strangeness is only the beginning. The rest of the White Socks also appear, and Ray gets a new message that gets him into contact with writer Terrence Mann (James Earl Jones). Together, the two of them go on a quest chasing ghosts of the past, while the farm is in danger of being foreclosed...
Analysis: I had no idea what to expect of this movie other than that it was about baseball, and being a continental European, I don't have the first clue about baseball (nor cricket, before anyone asks). I once watched "Any Given Sunday", though, so I'm kind of an expert.
And yes, I know that movie was about football, but I also don't understand football (nor soccer), so my point stands.
Anyway, this movie is like a cookie. You eat it, and it makes you happy. It reminds me of "Interstate 60" a lot, a movie with a similarly fantastical premise about a core American experience (in that movie's case, driving the interstate) trying to get a nostalgic point across.
The point in question is to make amends for past mistakes and chase your dreams. It's simple, as these tend to go. Ray left his father on bad terms and never managed to make up with him before he died. His father, meanwhile, never managed to break through in professional baseball, led a boring straightforward life and died early. Baseball was the thing that connected them when Ray was a kid, and it drove them apart when he slowly became an adult. It's only natural that the ghosts of the 1919 series, pretty much the incorporation of lost chances, would help him. Trust me, it makes intuitive sense in the movie.
Shoeless Joe Jackson, meanwhile, missed baseball for his whole life after being barred from playing due to allegations of rotten deals that he denied during his whole life, and so did the rest of the players. They use Ray's baseball field for the sheer fun of batting and pitching balls again, for the purity of the sport. It's not about righting wrongs, it's not about reliving the thrill of fandom again. They never manage more than four spectators at the same time, and it doesn't matter at all. Jackson and his pals ask whether it's heaven, and while Ray asserts that it's "just Iowa", this doesn't really answer the question. Heaven is a concept, and an individual one at that.
The case is more difficult with Terrence Mann. Ray isn't sure what he's got to do with him, and Mann isn't either. He's also the hardest convert to the cause, but when he's convinced by yet another sign, he's all in, and in the end, not only does he get to reckon with his hidden baseball obsession, he also rediscovers the interest in fundamental truths that he shed when the 60s made place to the cynical 70s, where "people elected Tricky Dick twice". I can feel ya, bro.
On the way, they also meet a former baseball obsessive turned medical doctor who lost his chance at playing in the big leagues, much like Ray's dad, but whose life became a lot healthier when he made healing into his new life goal. He isn't mourning for a lost career like Ray's dad, but rather for the chance to once play with the big leagues - as with Jackson, it's the experience he craves, and Mann and Ray are able to give it to him, only for the doc to fundamentally re-assert his life-choices in a moving scene where he gives up the second shot at youth to rescue a life once more.
Although unfortunately only a minor supporting character, Ray's wife Annie (Amy Madigan) also gets a new shot of excitement, an excitement that she didn't even knew she missed. In a marvelous scene that could never appear in a movie like this today, she's mobilizing a hall full of conservative parents to fight an attempt by a right-wing nut to censor a Terrence Mann novel for use in literature class and wins by invoking the Bill of Rights. Unlike the rules of the genre would dictate, she fully supports Ray and lives all of it with him.
In the end, the movie is not trying to make any major points. Terrence Mann would approve; he tells Ray (and the audience) pretty explicitly that those are bullshit. Instead, it's a love letter to baseball and the sport, to fantasy, to believing into something and in good memories. This is nostalgia in a good way, not weaponized, not marketed, not mocked, but rather taken to attain a measure of peace and balance to your life. It's not the "remember that thing?!" that current Hollywood is exploiting to the last cent but rather evoking a state of mind. It doesn't matter if it's nostalgia about a baseball season that's by now more than 100 years ago; I don't care for baseball and had the state of mind evoked all the same. That's film making at its highest.
Verdict: Watch this movie. You don't know how much you needed it until you do.