FORREST GUMP (1994)

  • Director: Robert Zemeckis
  • Writers: Eric Roth, based on the novel by Winston Groom
  • Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Sally Field, and Mykelti Williamson
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 (#71), 6 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Robert Zemeckis, Best Actor – Tom Hanks, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects), 7 additional Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor – Gary Sinise, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Starz app, Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, and AppleTV

Those of us who are younger certainly have a lot to complain about when it comes to the Baby Boomer generation. They created a counterculture movement in the 1960s and then seemingly completely abandoned it in favor of corporatism. Instead of taking action to prevent planetary and societal issues, they became self-obsessed. They lucked into prosperity, took it for granted, and seem confused that later generations haven’t had the same luck. It is with that background that I come to Forrest Gump, which plays more than anything else ever made as a beatific greatest hits reel for Baby Boomers. Its protagonist is a blank slate, on whom our parents can project themselves. It starts and ends with an image of a feather, buffeted by the wind. This may work as a metaphor for Forrest himself, but it seems an extremely charitable reading of his generation as a whole, a connection the movie wants us to make.

Gump was a huge success when it first hit cinemas in 1994, two years into the first Baby Boomer presidency. Its central character (Tom Hanks), has an IQ of 75 and speaks with a thick Alabaman accent. The story follows Forrest as he traipses through several decades of American history, using what were, at the time, groundbreaking special effects to insert Hanks directly into actual historical footage. Keep in mind, this was several decades before Deepfakes. He accidentally starts Elvis’ career, is at the University of Alabama (on a football scholarship) at the time of the controversy over the first Black student, goes to Vietnam, where he earns the Medal of Honor (pretty much by accident), joins the Ping-Pong team that went to China, starts a shrimp fishing company, which turns into a huge success (by accident) when all the other shrimp boats are destroyed by Hurricane Carmen, becomes a “gazillionaire,” but just sees the money as “one less thing to worry about” and is happy just mowing the football field at his local high school. Throughout all of this, his story periodically intersects with that of his childhood sweetheart Jenny (Robin Wright), who becomes involved to a much greater degree with the 1960s counterculture movement, but eventually gets into hard drugs, gets hepatitis, and dies, though not before having (by accident) Forrest’s son (Haley Joel Osment, in his debut).

All of this is scored to a selection of the most stereotypical music of the various time periods depicted that you can think of, which can be a fun jukebox experience if you don’t think about it too hard. The movie sure hasn’t. It’s directed by Robert Zemeckis, who has created some really great movies over the years (the Back to the Future trilogy, for one, which 100% should be the Zemeckis entry on the AFI Top 100 instead of this), but also a bunch of clunkers. For better or worse, he has spent his career seemingly more concerned with pushing the boundaries of filmmaking technology and special effects than he is with the particulars of his stories. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit? he combined live action with animation for the first time. In Death Becomes Her, he pioneered using digital effects to change the appearance of human actors. Then he became obsessed with using motion capture technology to animate his actors, starting with 2004’s The Polar Express. At one point he said he planned to make all his future movies using this technique. He has since gone away from this, however, and his upcoming movie The Witches, based on the novel by Roald Dahl, seems to mostly be live action if the trailer is any indication, though with plenty of CGI mice too. It hits HBO Max starting October 22.

I don’t really feel qualified to talk about whether Forrest’s whole thing is offensive to disabled people, or whether Hanks’ weird accent is an accurate depiction of how a “slow” man from rural Alabama would talk. What I can tell you is that this, whether by design or not, is a deeply Conversative with a capital C movie. Forrest is battered to and fro by the winds of changes, but he means well and works hard, and so everything works out for him. He gets rich because he persevered through the storm while the others stayed in dock (like sane people), and so he deserves it. Meanwhile, Jenny destroys herself by becoming a hippie. Black Panthers are in the movie, but briefly, as a caricature. Her boyfriend hits her (shortly after referring to Forrest, in his military uniform, as a “baby killer”), then apologizes by saying “that liar Johnson just got me so mad.” It is the view of this movie that the counterculture movement was always a mistake, and that the right way to go was always to stay patriotic, work hard, and thus get rich. As you can probably tell, I have zero patience for any of this BS. 

All of that is somewhat inapposite to the question of whether Forrest Gump actually works as a movie, though in some ways it’s the same problems that crop up. In telling us the story of this guy who’s basically a blank slate, there really isn’t a lot of drama. We know Forrest is going to come out OK, and in fact everyone else in the movie, no matter what happens to them, is made OK through Forrest. Gary Sinise’s Lieutenant Dan loses his legs in Vietnam, and descends into despair, but “makes his peace with God” after working on Forrest’s shrimp boat. Jenny is redeemed through her love for Forrest. Even his army friend Bubba (Mykelti Williamson, wearing a weird fake lip for reasons that remain unclear to me), who is killed in Vietnam, eventually makes good after Forrest makes millions from his shrimp boat idea, then gives half the money to Bubba’s mother, who “never had to cook for anyone again.” So, if not a drama, is it a comedy? There are basically two kinds of jokes in this movie, the “haha Forrest is so dumb” jokes and the “I recognize that historical event” jokes. The latter are barely jokes. At one point Reagan getting shot gets plays on a TV in the background of a completely unrelated scene in which none of the characters are paying attention to the TV. What is the point of this, except to check a box? As for the former, I don’t really find them funny. In one scene, Forrest misinterprets Lyndon Johnson’s words and ends up mooning the President. I think we should make a rule that you can’t win a Best Actor Oscar if you moon the President in the movie. Maybe we can make an exception for Trump, though, jury’s still out on that.

I think that Forrest Gump worked as a huge mainstream hit in 1994 because most of the audience had lived through the events depicted. Most of the audience was getting those little nostalgia hits that come about once a minute. But now, those of who didn’t look at this movie and many of us likely fail to connect with it. The movie’s position on all these historical events seems to be, basically, “hey, wasn’t that crazy?” It hasn’t thought about them beyond that. It basically ignores the Civil Rights movement except for the brief cameo by George Wallace, with Forrest comically gawking over his shoulder, wondering what all the fuss is about. Somehow they managed to make a movie about the sweep of history from the 1950s to the 1980s, about a main character from Alabama, and barely mention Civil Rights. To go further would have been too controversial, I guess.

But to come back to my central point here, Forrest is just a nothing at the center of his movie. Several of his lines have become famous (“Life is like a box of chocolates.” “Stupid is as stupid does.”) but they’re all him quoting someone else, mostly his saintly mother (Sally Field). Maybe if he was given some agency at any point, I wouldn’t care so much about other issues with this movie. Instead, he’s just blown back and forth, like the feather at the beginning and end. The closest he comes to “making a decision” in the movie is “keeping his promise,” but even when he makes promises in this movie he’s promising something because the other character asked him to. Without an actual character holding things together, the nostalgia parade becomes the entire movie. But nostalgia for what? I’m not sure this movie can actually answer that question.

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