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Non-Review Review: Forrest Gump

On one level, Forrest Gump is just too sacchrine for me. Really, I feel like a need a filling after joining the eponymous character on a whirlwind tour of modern American history (or what could really be described as “America’s greatest hits”). That said, there’s a certain charm to the movie that belies this incredible sweetness (which itself stands in sharp contrast to the cynicism of the novel upon which it will be based). And most of that charm is Tom Hanks.

Plus it doesn’t hurt that the movie has an amazing soundtrack.

Forrest was quite popular in the nineties...

Forrest Gump has the distinction of having provoking quite a considerable amount of movie nerd hate. Part of that comes from the fact that everyone was talking about that movie for years afterwards. Seriously, my grandmother would not shut up about it for quite some time (she reminded me of one of the old dears in the story who ends up sharing a bench with Gump, remarking “I thought it was a very lovely story”). There’s also the fact that the film beat both Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption to the Best Picture Oscar in 1994 (indeed, it took four of the big five awards that year – picture, actor, director and screenplay). While the film was almost certainly overrated (certainly in comparison to the other two contenders), I find it hard to muster up hatred or even dislike towards the film.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s far from a perfect film. I’ve always found the story disarmingly simplistic and straightforward. It feels almost counterintuitive to simplify more than thirty years of American history into a two hour film, particularly if you’re going to offer such a shallow overview. I get that it’s a metaphor for the American experience – that is one heck of a recent history, with the highs and the lows – but the movie simply can’t cover these moments with anything more than a cursory glance. If you want to experience the horror of Vietnam, Zemeckis can’t compete in half an hour with the work of Kubrick, Stone or Coppola (among many others). The same sort of logic applies to the war movement or segregation or anything like that.

However, it’s really inevitable that a film covering such a volume of material wouldn’t be able to offer much depth. Still, it can’t help be seem simplistic and straightforward when – well – it wasn’t. I know we are witnessing the world through the eyes of Forrest with a “simplistic” (to say the least) view of the world, but it just feels wrong to see these moments reduced to generic images – like ones that would appear on a postcard. While Forrest’s naivity works well with the smaller moments (single-handedly foiling the Watergate break-in, for example – “those flashlights are keeping me awake”) it feels inappropriate applied to those more seminal moments (and, yes, I’d argue that the Watergate break-in was “a moment”, in that the film ignores the Watergate scandal – by contrast, it focuses on Vietnam and the Anti-War movement, both fairly seminal and defining moments).

... indeed, he had quite the following...

Tom Hanks is the film’s ace in the hole. Sure, his manner of speech is incredibly grating – complete with forced Southern accent and patronisingly simplistic speech patterns (referring to “my best good friend”, for example) – but it does pay off once or twice (check out the “fruit company” Forrest invests in). Still, Hanks makes the character instantly charming and incredibly sympathetic. Even if I was irritated by his speech patterns, I certainly felt for him – and since Forrest is serving as our tour guide through this section of modern history, that’s essential to the film’s success. Even though I am a cynical old codger at heart, I may have melted when Forrest went for his “little run”. What? I’m not made of stone.

Indeed the running sequence exemplifies everything that I like about the movie – despite my uncertain over its more direct engagement with American history. It is, simply, a good story – a beautiful little metaphor for human accomplishment – we just keep on running, a little further each time. Reflecting the way that Hanks and Zemeckis have denied any attempts to read a political subtext into the film (or perhaps foreshadowing it), it’s charming to see the reporters and commentators trying to ascribe a political motivation to his cross-country run – the reality is much simpler. “It gave people hope.” It’s a nice little segment.

Similarly, I’m not convinced of the efforts by various political ideologies to read a greater meaning into the film. On one hand, Jenny does suffer a great deal while living a counter-cultural (anti-war rock’n’roll) lifestyle, only finding peace when she embraces her humble Southern roots, and Forrest himself lives something of a charmed life by embracing the good ol’ Southern values – but I don’t think the film is as simple as that. Ignoring the fact that the film turns Forrest into an icon of the anti-war protesters or he helps bring down Nixon, the film is keen to point out that Forrest – for his core Southern values – isn’t exactly aware of the implications of everything that’s going on (segregation being the most obvious example). I think you can read a political message into the film anyway you want, and I think it’s fruitless to argue over it. “And that’s all I have to say about that.”

That said, there’s a weird dissonance between the humour and the drama of the story. While it works quite well most of the time, it’s slightly disconcerting to see the upbeat wholesome all-American humour played straight against the horrors of Vietnam or segregation. While a darker or more sarcastic sense of humour might have played better (lending the moments a subversive charm), it’s hard to see the drama and the comedy played entirely straight alongside each other.

No Hanks-y panky...

The core of the story is somewhat charming – underscoring the magical the way that history can play out without anyone (in this case Forrest) being aware of the significance or deeper meaning of what’s going on. It’s a charming story of the roles fate and luck play in our lives. If it sounds hokey, it is, it really is – but I can forgive it a decent amount of that hokeyness. And even taking the historical in-jokes out of the equation (and there are many), the movie works well as a love story between Forrest and Jenny. Zemeckis is a skilled director, and he can wring an amazing amount of emotion from these scenes – managing to tug at the heart strings despite the fact that Forrest and Jenny are meeting up and falling apart about once every ten minutes.

And because I have nowhere else to put it, Gary Sinese is a legend. Just in general, but particularly here as Lt. Dan, the jerk with a heart of gold. Although he’s one of the best things about the CSI franchise, it’s a shame that his television work has stopped him from accepting these sorts of quirky supporting roles – ones which he seems to play so perfectly. The special effects for the movie were revolutionary at the time and some have aged better than others (mostly the digital elimination of Dan’s legs, although you can see Sinese supporting himself on his own legs in some sequences). The restored footage integrating Forrest with historical figures are a mixed bag. Some, such as with Lyndon B. Johnston, are effective – while others (inspiring John Lennon’s Imagine, for example) are cringeworthy.

By the way, spot Haley Joel Osmont as Forrest’s young son.

All in all, the movie’s a sacchrine piece of Americana. It overeggs the pudding more than once, and I’m not sure that modern American history can effectively be condensed down to a two-hour-and-a-half film, but it’s still worth a look – at least once. Just make sure you don’t end up with diabetes at the end of it.

By the way, there’s a spoiler down here, so look away if you haven’t seen the film, but…

… what are the odds that Forrest has AIDS, since Jenny had the “virus” and nobody knew anything about what it was or how it spreads?

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7 Responses

  1. I really enjoyed Forrest Gump over the years. As you said, it simply is a charming, feel good story about a highly likable man with a childish innocence. Sure, it hits a slow patch here and there and is overly sugar coated but overall, I thought it deserved its Best Picture Oscar.

    • Controversial decision! I’m not sure it deserved the award, but it certainly didn’t deserve the backlash it got.

  2. I can’t say that I would’ve voted for it as the Best Pic over the likes of Pulp Fiction or Shawshank Redemption, but this is one of those movies that it’s hard to hate, and I still find it quite enjoyable to watch. It kinda sucks that they ended up ditching the efforts on the sequel. They just couldn’t go through with it after 9/11 happened.

    • Yep, the book of the original is much more cynical than the film, so I don’t know – they could easily have toned the sequel down. Isn’t this one of those projects you keep hearing rumours about every couple of months? Like just about any Tarantino dream project?

  3. This is such a good movie.
    I need to read the book to see how it compares.
    This will be on my favorite movie list.

  4. I believe everyone has a right to their opinion about films or other topics. However from a lot of the comments I have read about this film, I do not think many got the gist of the message from the author and the film maker. This film is a great modern fable, a fable in the dictionary is defined as a brief fictitious story that teaches a moral. There are many morals defined in this film but foremost is integrity and a simple goodness.

    I have a half brother who grew up in the Southern U.S. and on one occasion we were discussing this film and he said he felt it portrayed Southerners as dimwitted. I disagreed with him and informed him that the author himself was a native Southerner. The setting is central to this story in that it lets the tale unfold tying in factual events with the fable before us.

    The film is wonderfully directed by Robert Zemeckis, the film is his opus and is acted by a great cast on all levels. From the children who were Forrest Gump and Gump Jr. by Haley Joel Osment. Say what you want but I feel Tom Hanks deserved the Oscar award. Gary Sinise is synonymous with Lt.Dan whenever you hear those words. Sally Fields is the loving dutiful mother in her challenging situation. Mykelti Williamson as Bubba gives you a real sense in the story that Gump had a genuine friend, he moves you with his character. Words don’t grasp the full performance of Robin Wright Penn as Jenny. Jennys’ tenderness and pain are palpable as exhibited by Wright.

    I feel that much of Gumps’ appeal is his downright sense of doing the right thing regardless of the people and situations around him and we see that in this film. That being the case maybe we all wish we could be just a little more like that, trying to maintain innate goodness and not the trade-offs we often make as we go down lifes highways.

    The movie has it all too,drama,comedy and it challenges societal norms as well. Then there are the almost endless quotes from the movie that have slipped into everyday speech. They are too numerous to say at this point.One of the toppers for me in the movie is when Forrest is in a quandary about life and wondering as Lt.Dan said we all have a destiny and his Mom says it is where we are all just floating around like a feather in the wind. Forrest’s character terms it very well with this quote,”I think it is a little bit of both.” From my experiences in life it does appear to be that way. So if you have not seen the movie,see it soon you are in for a real treat. If you did not like it, give it a try again and hopefully you will see it for the great story it is!

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