Revisiting ‘Forrest Gump’

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On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of its original release in 1994, “Forrest Gump” has received a limited re-release in IMAX theaters. The film dominated the 1994 Academy Awards. It garnered six Oscar statuettes, including the big three for Best Film, Director, and Actor. The re-release offers an opportunity to savor the film’s technical wizardry on an expanded screen. It also invites a re-examination of the iconographic aspects of this highly touted film.

We meet the fictional character of Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) as he sits on a bench at a bus stop. He is a slow-witted, but exudes a certain unmistakable earnestness. Forrest details his worldview, encapsulated by the saccharine phrase, “Life is like a box of chocolates.”

The film then flashbacks to Forrest’s early years and follows our protagonist through his event-filled life. Forrest was born in Greenbow, Alabama, the son of a loving, single mother (Sally Field). The neonate is named after Civil War Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who founded the Ku Klux Klan. Young Forrest (Michael Conner Humphreys) has a spinal deformity, which reduces him to hobbling around town with his legs encased in heavy braces.

In addition, Forrest is intellectually impaired. In a key plot device, the text of the film explicitly advises us that Forrest’s I.Q. was tested as being 75. It should be noted that this is on the upper range of mental retardation. People with this I.Q. are capable of performing simple, repetitive jobs. They can live independently, albeit only with difficulty.

On the first day of school, Forrest meets an attractive young girl, Jenny Curran (Hanna Hall). She becomes his best and only friend. Their ongoing relationship, with Robin Wright playing Jenny as an adult, forms the narrative spine of the film.

Because of his handicaps, Forrest is subjected to the malicious teasing of his peers. One day, he is being chased by a bunch of bullies. As Forrest runs from his tormentors, his leg braces spontaneously fall off and he is revealed to be super fast. In the course of the scene, Forrest matures into his proto-adult form, now portrayed by Hanks.

It is the first example of the film’s far-fetched plot contrivances. This isn’t magical realism, in which there is an acknowledgment that the event isn’t based in reality. Instead, the film suggests that that the depicted event is somehow possible. This sets the tone of the film, which becomes a litany of ludicrous coincidences and other absurdities.

As a result of his running prowess, Forrest receives a scholarship to the University of Alabama. There, he becomes an All-American running back for Coach Bear Bryant. His pronounced intellectual shortcomings apparently do not preclude him from learning the team’s playbook or for that matter obtaining a baccalaureate.

After graduating, Forrest enlists in the United States Army to discharge his putative patriotic duty. There, he serves under Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinese). Forrest’s commanding officer hails from a long tradition of family military service, which dates back to the Revolutionary War. Forrest becomes fast friends with a fellow infantryman, Bubba Blue (Mykelti Williamson), an African-American, who passionately recites twenty-one different preparations for shrimp.

After completing his tour of duty, Forrest’s promise to Bubba inspires him to purchase a shrimp boat, which he names Jenny after his childhood friend. He parlays his initial investment of $25,000 seed money into a thriving shrimping empire. The film offers no credible explanation of how someone with Forrest’s developmental disability could achieve such entrepreneurial success. Instead, it attributes it to a fluke circumstance. Hurricane Carla destroyed the boats of all his competitors. Apparently, economic Darwinism is some sort of benevolent force of nature.

In the early days of computer-assisted special effects, director Robert Zemeckis became an early user of it. Throughout his career, in films like “Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” Zemeckis continued to be the one of the industry’s pioneers in availing himself of available technology.

“Forrest Gump”masterfully uses actual documentary footage. Hanks’s character is grafted into the footage in a manner, which is remarkably seamless. This is a recurrent technique, which the film uses to great advantage, presenting Forrest as a zelig-like character, who is present at various historically significant events. He teaches the distinctive pelvic thrust and hip gyration to
Elvis Presley, who is staying in Forrest’s mother. Forrest is depicted standing in the background, when Governor George Wallace stands in the doorway, blocking two African-American students from integrating the University of Alabama. As a result of his accomplishments on the gridiron, Forrest is invited to the White House, where he shakes hands with President Kennedy. He also meets LBJ, who gives him the Medal of Honor for his military service. Nixon puts Forrest up in the Watergate Hotel. In a deleted scene, he plays ping pong with George H.W. Bush, while he was head of the C.I.A. Forrest is subsequently dispatched to Red China, where becomes part of the ping pong diplomacy initiative. Clad in his military uniform, he speaks at an anti-war rally, organized by Abbie Hoffman.  Forrest also appears on the Dick Cavett show, where he is a co-panelist with another counter-culture figure, John Lennon.

Back when “Forrest Gump” was released, several of the people involved with it, took pains to disclaim that it was laden with any message. Tom Hanks, a well-known liberal, insisted, “The film is non-political and thus non-judgmental.” Producer, Steve Tisch, opined that the film was, “All over the political map, people have been calling Forrest their own. But, ‘Forrest Gump’ isn’t about politics or conservative values.”

These vehement denials are belied by the text of the film, which is an unabashed attack on the ‘60s counterculture and an attempt to retroactively justify our incursion into Vietnam. Forrest reduces this national tragedy to a simple-minded joke, “We took long walks and were always looking for this guy named Charlie.” Although he is not an ideologue, Forrest, with his flat top haircut, is a paragon of traditional values. By contrast, his childhood friend, Jenny, becomes a hippie, who indulges in drugs and casual sex. She dies of an unspecified virus (AIDS?). As the film’s director, Zemeckis, conceded, Forrest epitomizes the “ideal of what America was supposed to be” and Jenny represents “the unfulfilled… hole-in-the-soul part of that American generation.”

The film reignited the culture wars that raged during the turbulent ‘60s. It is no coincidence that the film and the character have been aggressively embraced by movement conservatives. The image of Forrest Gump was invoked to symbolize traditional values by the 1994 Republican Revolution, engineered by Newt Gingrich. In 1995, “National Review” included the film on its list of the Best 100 Conservative Movies of all time. Then, in 2009, the magazine ranked the film number four on its 25 Best Conservative Movies of the Last 25 Years list.

“Forrest Gump” is a highly entertaining and emotionally moving film, replete with remarkable production values. However, its implausible storyline and disingenuous political message remain problematic.

“Forrest Gump”: *** PG-13 (for drug content, some sensuality and war violence) 141 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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