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Review: Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump (1994)

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Premise: Based on the novel by Winston Groom. An intellectually slow but morally earnest man (Tom Hanks) grows up amid the Vietnam era and unwittingly participates in many of the major events of that time. 

What Works: In 1985, filmmaker Robert Zemeckis released Back to the Future, in which a teenager time traveled to 1955 and encountered his parents in their high school days. The film was a tremendous hit and made Zemeckis a major Hollywood director. A decade later Zemeckis made Forrest Gump and the two films have a shared appeal. Back to the Future postulated a version of the 1950s that wasn’t quite Leave It to Beaver; the time traveling teenager of that film discovered that his parents, especially his mother, weren’t the virtuous souls he imagined them to be. On the other hand, Back to the Future was very much a Ronald Reagan-era fantasy that drew a neat line between the myth of the 1950s and the then contemporary 1980s without the messiness of the 1960s and 70s in between. (See the BFI Film Classics book on Back to the Future by Andrew Shail and Robin Stoate for more on this.) In Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis dealt with the time and events connecting the 1950s to the 1980s but presented the events of this chaotic time in much the same way that Back to the Future had re-envisioned the post war years. On one hand, the early parts of Forrest Gump put corruption and sexual abuse into the background of what is typically portrayed as an idyllic period of American history and it undermined the idealized version of the 1970s counterculture as usually presented by the media. At the same time Forrest Gump presented the conflicts of that time through lighthearted set pieces. This walk though of recent history works to the extent that it does because of its characters. Tom Hanks is cast in the title role and Forrest Gump is one of the most memorable characters in the history of Hollywood. Much of that is due to Hanks contributions as an actor because Gump actually does very little in this movie. As a character, Forrest Gump does not really change over the course of the story while the people and culture around him change dramatically. This inverts the expectations that audiences have of mainstream narrative filmmaking and it makes the supporting characters the most interesting people in the film, especially Gary Sinise as Lieutenant Dan and Robin Wright as Jenny. Both Dan and Jenny suffer through the difficulties of the time period, with Gump the fixed object around which they orbit, and each of them cope with their pain through self-abuse before coming to a generally satisfying, albeit conventional, peaceful resolution.

What Doesn’t: Forrest Gump was a tremendous commercial and critical success when it was released in 1994. Like most things that are popular, it’s become a target of derision. It’s hip to dislike Forrest Gump but some of the scorn directed at this movie is legitimate. The premise requires a tremendous suspension of disbelief, as a single character is directly and indirectly involved in many of the key events of a generation. The movie is not intended to be taken literally; it proceeds very much like a tall tale or a fable. But even accounting for the leeway afforded to those kinds of stories, Forrest Gump is problematic. Tall tales intend to mythologize people and events and fables provide a lesson or a truth about the world. Forrest Gump mythologizes the recent past but it does so by simplifying complex situations and polishing the edge off of difficult topics. It is a fable with no lesson and the selection of historical events appears to be random. Unlike 1979’s Being There, in which a similarly humble character encountered difficult situations, the moviemakers of Forrest Gump lionize their title character’s simplicity and in the end they substitute schmaltz for an epiphany. Forrest Gump allows the audience, especially Baby Boomers, a chance to nostalgically revisit the past but without having to deal with the difficulties of the time. This is what makes the movie problematic but it is also the key to its mainstream appeal.

DVD extras: The 20th anniversary blu-ray edition includes featurettes, screen tests, and trailers.

Bottom Line: Forrest Gump is very entertaining and it has become a cultural touchstone with its memorable characters and bits of dialogue that have become a part of the popular lexicon. The story feels profound when, in fact, it isn’t but the filmmakers set out to create a feel-good nostalgia tour and on that score the movie succeeds.

Episode: #508 (September 14, 2014)