Film shares the fantasy view of world that Reagan sold to America
Column by Manavendra K. Thakur
Throughout his life, Ronald Reagan was many things, and he was called many names by many different people during his eight years as president. But more than anything else, Reagan was an actor. His extraordinary charisma and personal popularity resulted, at least in part, from his experience as an actor. That is why it is especially fitting, and even ironic, that four months after his leaving office, the best way to understand Reagan's success story with the American public is to experience it first-hand in the form of a Hollywood film. That film is the recently released Field of Dreams.
The film is about a 1960s activist turned Iowa farmer, played by Kevin Costner, who follows the advice of a mysterious voice that tells him to build a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield. The film has become popular with American audiences because it offers a charming fantasy that tugs at the heart and because viewers leave the theater with a warm, fuzzy glow inside them. In short, it's a "feel good" movie. Reagan's popularity was based on virtually the same things: his ability to charm his audiences with his likable, affable personality. He was, in short, a "feel good" president -- especially after Jimmy Carter.
Reagan was frequently portrayed as "out of touch with reality," but his simplistic and soothing message proved to be very much in tune with the mood of many Americans nationwide. The film's story is an equally simplistic story and reassuring fantasy that has proved to be popular at the box office with many Americans nationwide.
Reagan told Americans that he could raise defense spending, cut taxes, and balance the budget at the same time. The $1 trillion added to the national debt by Reagan proved this to be pure fantasy, of course, but the point is that Reagan drew on his personal appeal to make Americans believe in this pure fantasy. In the film, Costner's character is so thoroughly sold on the fantastic idea of building a baseball field in the middle of a corn field in Iowa that he spends all his life savings and mortgages his farm. His wife (played by Amy Madigan) unhesitatingly follows along, telling him that "If you think you ought to build it, then I think you should build it."
Reagan offered an exceedingly simplistic view of the world. The Russians were bad, Americans were good, and being American meant believing in motherhood, apple pie, God, and country. The film offers a similar version of Americana: at one point a character points behind Costner while talking about attaining the American Dream. Costner turns around, and the film cuts to a shot of his large, comfortable house lit up in the evening twilight. His loving wife and pretty young daughter stand on the front porch as they admire the country view. A white picket fence and green lawn completes the Norman Rockwell image.
Both Reagan and the film used images similar to these (remember the "Morning in America" commercials?) to manipulate their audiences and tug at their heartstrings.
Another parallel involves how both Reagan and the film offer a comforting redemption for events that scarred the American psyche. Reagan was the first president to explicitly pay tribute to the American presence in Vietnam. The film similarly pays tribute to the baseball players who were involved in the Chicago "Black Sox" game-fixing scandal of 1919. Compare Field of Dreams's attitude toward the scandal with that of John Sayle's recent Eight Men Out, and it becomes clear that the healing and reconciliation offered by both Reagan and Field of Dreams necessarily involves an element of forgetting the darker moments of the past, or at least to present them in as positive a light as possible.
There is one further parallel that is perhaps the most subtle. Reagan drew much of his support from those who came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s (the so-called "neo-conservatives" and, to a lesser degree, Reagan Democrats). In the film, both Costner and his wife are graduates of Berkeley and 1960s protests, and the film makes a point of including a scene where Costner's wife singlehandedly stops the local PTA from banning "obscene" literary books from the school library. Very shortly afterwards, they decide to build the baseball field.
The faith which allows them to gloss over the economic risks of their decision is completely at odds with the hardnosed rebellious attitudes they demonstrated earlier -- but it is entirely consistent with the reversal of political attitudes that had to take place in order for many Reagan Democrats to rationalize their newly-found conservative views. Consequently, the film both soothes and lays to rest any nagging doubts that neo-conservatives might still have about their reversal. As one might expect, this only adds to the film's popularity.
This soothing effect is very subtle, because it is plain that the filmmakers did not set out to make a political statement or to explore the reasons for Reagan's popularity. (They probably are neither willing nor able to make such a film.) Nevertheless, it is clear that strong parallels exist between the Field of Dreams and the essential Reagan message: the fantasy the film peddles is precisely the same fantasy that Reagan sold the American public in 1980 and 1984.
Manavendra K. Thakur '87 is a film critic for The Tech.