Forrest Gump (1994): United States – directed by Robert Zemeckis
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains war violence, language, some sexual content, mature themes, drug use
Forrest Gump is an unquestionable crowd-pleaser of a film, captivating audiences and garnering a huge amount of Oscar love. There has been some backlash in the years since its release, especially considering that it beat out cult favorites like The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction [review here] for the Best Picture Oscar.
A second look (and the first in many years) at Forrest Gump convinced me that the film is actually quite good, if a little silly and quirky in its ideas and story. It is enjoyable and fun, though an overly sentimental ending somewhat tarnishes the previous two hours. Tom Hanks is convincing and lovable as Forrest Gump, the boy with inadequate legs and a lower-than-average IQ. His momma (Sally Field) believes in him, going so far as to sleep with a school principal so that Forrest can go to normal public school.
At school his only friend is Jenny (Robin Wright Penn, when Jenny is grown-up). Jenny is abused and mistreated at home, a useful background for explaining her later actions and mistreatment of herself. One day she encourages Forrest to run, and he does so, losing his leg braces in the process. Eventually Forrest goes to college on a football scholarship, though he has no ability to understand the game. After school he joins the Army and fights in Vietnam, making friends with Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) and Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise). Still later in life he becomes a famous ping-pong player and shrimp fisherman, gaining a great deal of wealth in the process.
But Forrest has no idea of the impact his actions have. He is naive and innocent, caring only about his friends and the people he loves. He narrates much of the film as he sits on a park bench in Georgia, talking to whoever happens to be waiting for a bus. He holds a box of chocolates and a feather that floats down from the sky. He endears himself to the waiting bus-riders just as he endears himself to the audience, by telling things as they are with his simple exposition. It means nothing to him that he’s met three different presidents, inspired Elvis’ loose hips, and given people the inspiration for the bumper sticker “Shit happens” and the smiley face t-shirt.
The reason for this may be more that Forrest Gump isn’t exactly the story of a young man and his journey through life; instead, Forrest is more like a spirit of inspiration that sweeps through three decades of American history. He has been a part of almost every cultural landmark of one of the most tumultuous times America has faced, and come away clean-faced and as simple as ever. Only when the film switches direction toward the end, when he leaves his bench, does the story lose some impact by making Forrest a real person. As the audience follows him closely as things happen, instead of reliving them alongside his memory, the movie falters. He is less interesting as an actual person than he is as an embodiment of the American spirit. Most of the movie is engrossing and humorous and touching, though it becomes a little less so when he reaches the point of running across the continent for two years. And he maintains his gentle childishness throughout, ensuring that the audience will continue to love him.
The movie looks great, as director Robert Zemeckis thoughtfully moves the camera through many of the great moments in American history. It doesn’t hurt that maestro Roger Deakins was the one actually sitting behind the camera. It also helps a great deal that Zemeckis had a huge budget, giving him the opportunity to do everything from ground-breaking CG (to insert Forrest into historical footage of presidents) to mount a hundred KKK horses for a 3-second flashback. Every little bit adds some credibility and depth to the story.
My only other complaint, besides faltering toward the end, lies with how the content is portrayed. There is a fair amount of language, sexual content ranging from prostitution to child abuse to plain, old-fashioned love-making, and some strong violence during the Vietnam War. All of it is somewhat neutered, however, to ensure a PG-13 rating and remain palatable to a general American audience. The lengths they go to in order to sneakily cover up a slight bit of nudity is distracting and silly, and cautious moments of bleeping out language is also not ideal. It is an adult tale, but to remain commercial and profitable they hide certain un-appetizing elements. It isn’t as big a problem in Forrest Gump as it is in some other films, but still something that detracts from the experience.
There is a great deal to love about Forrest Gump and Tom Hanks’ performance. Capturing America through some of its most trying days is a challenge, and it is heartwarming and enlightening to see them experienced through the eyes of a grown-up child. Forrest’s viewpoint on life gives the audience another perspective to consider, often granting wisdom and insight through its contemplation. Besides that, the film is often funny and fun, aided by many silly and quirky moments. Perhaps Forrest Gump isn’t one of the best films of the 1990’s, and perhaps not even of 1994, but it is certainly worthy of watching and appreciating and enjoying.