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Irony, Thy Name Is Gump: “Forrest Gump” and the Art of Earnest Irony…

Forrest Gump is a movie that I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head around.

On one level, it’s an incredibly sacchrine and simplistic exploration of the first fifty years of the so-called “American Century”, the turbulent second half of the twentieth century as navigated by a dim-wit with nothing but good intentions to guide his way. The eponymous character floats on the winds of history like a feather, a metaphor that bookends the film in a manner that is incredibly cloying. There is something undeniably condescending and overly simplistic in the notion of history in Forrest Gump, as a force that sweeps up men and nations without any rhyme or reason.

As such, it’s easy to be wary of Forrest Gump and its approach to history. Forrest Gump presents a very clean and sanitised accounting of the second half of the twentieth century, one in which there is absolutely nothing happening beneath the surface of American life, and in which there is no point even attempting to comprehend the myriad of forces at work on the country and its inhabitants. In this way, Forrest Gump plays as a trite moral fable. There is no point in even trying to understand the chaos that is the modern world. It is enough to be decent and oblivious, and things will work out fine.

At the same time, there has always been something lurking at the edge of the frame in Forrest Gump, beneath all the folksy trappings and the simplistic history lessons. It is too much to suggest that Forrest Gump has an edge, but it certainly has a point. Forrest Gump in many ways presents an avatar of the final fifty years of the twentieth century in its central character. The eponymous character is an embodiment of a certain American ideal, a personification of the American public that has been bewildered and confused by the speed and pace with which history seemed to move in that turbulent half-century.

With that in mind, there is something vaguely self-aware in Forrest Gump, something that perhaps simmers beneath the surface of the film. Gump is a likable and charming protagnonist, brilliantly brought to life by Tom Hanks in a performance that (deservedly) won him his second Best Actor Oscar. However, there has always been something uncanny in the film’s presentation of Gump as the character most ideally suited to the twentieth century, in contrast to supporting characters like Lieutenant Dan or Jennie. Forrest Gump is a movie that argues the only way to survive the twentieth century is as a fool and an idiot.

There’s always seemed something very wry and very cynical in that idea, buried beneath the film’s cotton-candy exterior.

It should be noted that a lot of this may be carried over from the source novel, written by Winston Groom. Groom’s novel was at once more literary and more bleak than the film that it inspired, with his central character even ruminating upon the literary figure of “the idiot” as a tool of social commentary. In a sequence that it is impossible to imagine in the film, Gump even implies a comparison to Fyodor Dostoevsky. Of course, the irony of The Idiot is that its central character was not actually an idiot, just possessed of the sort of decency and kindness that more cynical actors might mistake for idiocy.

Groom’s novel was more pointed and more absurd than Zemeckis’ film, more cynical in its outlook and more heightened in its aesthetic. At one point, Gump is even launched into space, a plot point towards which the film seems to be hinting when Lieutenant Dan shows up with “a magic leg” made from what “they use on the space shuttle.” Even the character of Gump himself is somewhat tempered, with Groom initially imagining John Goodman for the part. (It is possible to imagine some of this edge carrying over to other candidates for the lead role, including Bill Murray.)

As a film, Forrest Gump certainly presents a very earnest and life-affirming message. Its central character bumbles and blunders his way through the twentieth century, subtly influencing and manipulating history along the way. Gump meets three consecutive American Presidents. Gump is the man who alerts security to the Watergate break-in. Gump invents the smiley face. Gump comes up with the expression “sh!t happens.” Gump teaches Elvis how to shake his hips. Gump inspires the lyrics of John Lennon’s Imagine.

Gump wanders through the second half of the twentieth century, having a tremendous influence on American and global politics without even realising it. Gump is present at a variety of momentous occasions. He speaks at anti-war protests, he witnesses the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, he fights in Vietnam. Gump goes wherever the winds take him, never putting up much resistance along the way. He enlists in the army because he meets a recruiter at his graduation. He founds a shrimp company because Bubba tells him to. He runs across the country for reasons that ever he does not understand.

Forrest Gump repeatedly suggests that this is the correct way to go through life, that Forrest is almost protected by his ignorance. Forrest is free of the greater existential worries that plague characters like Jennie or Lieutenant Dan, characters who make plans and then watch as the tides of history smash them mercilessly against the rocks. In contrast, Forrest manages to stay afloat by refusing the fight against the tide of history, but refusing to ask the tough questions, by refusing any agency in his own life.

This is a rather unsettling idea, and one with deeply uncomfortable undercurrents. Forrest Gump is a movie that seems to advocate for ignorance, and which seems to argue that there is no point in even trying to understand the larger world. This is perhaps most obvious in the film’s treatment of race. The film’s first use of digitally doctored footage is to insert Tom Hanks into a sequence from Birth of a Nation, revealing that Forrest’s distant relative, “the great Civil War hero, General Nathan Bedford Forrest”, was a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Why would Forrest’s mother name him a founder of an organisation synonymous with racism? “They’d all dress up in their robes and their bedsheets and act like a bunch of ghosts or spooks or something,” Forrest relates. “They’d even put bedsheets on their horses and ride around. And anyway, that’s how I got my name. Forrest Gump. Momma said that the Forrest part was to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense.” It is a moment that very clearly articulates the world view of Forrest Gump.

Of course, what Nathan Bedford Forrest did made a great deal of sense in the context of the Civil War. Nathan Bedford Forrest was attempting to perpetuate a system of white supremacy that he worried had been eroded with the abolition of slavery. As such, he helped to found a movement designed to terrorise the recently liberated African American population. This is not especially complicated. It is a very simple reading of history. However, Forrest reduces all of that down to the idea that there’s no point even trying to understand how the world works.

This obviously has worrying real-world implications. Polling suggests that large portions of the American public refuse to accept that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War, downplaying the trauma and violence inflicted upon African Americans. Similarly, studies have suggested that modern Americans are receiving poor and incomplete accounts of the history of racism in America, particularly with regard to the Native American and African American communities. This is to say nothing of repeated efforts (rooted in both ignorance and malice) to downplay the horror of these atrocities.

In some ways, Forrest Gump seems to be the very embodiment of these difficulties that America has in understanding its own racist history, the film presenting its protagonist as an embodiment of racial innocence. Gump is completely oblivious to the very concept of racism. The movie repeatedly points out that Gump doesn’t understand racial slurs, often assuming them to be literal. (“When raccoons try to get on our back porch, Momma just chase ’em off with a broom,” Gump states when a student uses a racial slur to describe the new students attending the University of Alabama.)

Forrest Gump argues that its central character (and, implicitly, its white target audience) does not need to even understand racism in order to combat it. Despite being oblivious to the existence of racism or inequality, Gump is portrayed as a fundamentally decent human being who does his part for equality. He picks up a fallen book and hands it back to one of those African American students. He befriends Bubba during their time in basic training and Vietnam, to the point that he takes care of Bubba’s family when the young black man is killed in Vietnam.

(Indeed, the film’s only acknowledgement of slavery comes in a rather ill-judged joke that bookends the movie. Bubba’s family are introduced as servants of a wealthy white family, suggesting the inequality that exists within these communities. Later on, after Forrest provides them with Bubba’s share of the profits from Bubba Gump Shrimp, the family are revealed to have hired a white servant. As such, the film seems to argue, the racial dynamic is reversed. Equality has been accomplished.)

Forrest Gump speaks to the nineties idea of being “colour blind”, arguing that the world might be a better place if everybody was willing to draw a line under the past and simply didn’t perceive any difference between people of different backgrounds and ethnicities. It is a noble and well-intentioned idea, but one which cannot possibly account for both the structural inequality created by centuries of racial prejudice and the structural racism that still informs modern social dynamics. Forrest Gump advocates for an ineffective solution to issues of racism, in large part because this solution avoids making white people uncomfortable.

Forrest Gump doesn’t just struggle in its handling of race. Forrest Gump is borderline vindictive in its treatment of the character of Jennie, the eponymous character’s beloved childhood crush. Over the course of the movie, Jennie is beaten and abused repeatedly; by her father and then by a string of lovers. Jennie is forced to perform as part of a nude variety act, succumbs to drug abuse, and ends up dying of what is pretty heavily suggested to be a sexually-transmitted disease. The film’s mean-spiritedness carries over to naming one abusive boyfriend “Wesley”, a nod to Robin Wright’s role in The Princess Bride.

Part of this is just horribly gendered, reducing the character of Jennie to a prize to be won with little agency of her own within the narrative. Jennie’s choice in terrible men is explained in Freudian terms, as if she is reliving the trauma inflicted by her father’s abuse an unable to have a meaningful relationship or appreciate her own value until Forrest convinces her; even then, she retreats from his affection. Jennie is often seen running away from things, literally leaving. At the same time, there is something puritanical in her death from what is implied to be AIDS, which seems to be punishment for a life of liberation.

On a broader level, there is something reactionary in the film’s treatment of Jennie. If Forrest navigates the American cultural mainstream, then Jennie explores the counterculture. Forrest plays football, enlists in the army, founds a small business. Jennie becomes a peace activist, embraces the free love movement, protests the government. While the winds of fortune seem to favour Forrest, they actively punish Jennie. Jennie is repeatedly beaten and humiliated. She dies of what is implied to be a disease spread through sexual contact or recreational drug use, lending it an uncomfortable karmic quality.

Again, Forrest Gump seems to be embracing a broader cultural aesthetic. Forrest Gump was released in the mid-nineties, at a point in time when American popular consciousness was engaged in a debate about the legitimacy and the legacy of the liberalism of the sixties. From the perspective of the nineties, many conservatives decried the sexual and social liberation of the sixties as a mistake that had seriously damaged the underlying cultural fabric. Later in the decade, conservatives would rail against Bill Clinton’s infidelity as an example of the rotten fruit blooming from the erosion of social mores during the sixties.

It should be noted that Forrest Gump was released shortly before the so-called “Republican Revolution”, in which a wave of social conservatism swept across the nation and offered gave the Republican Party control of both houses of government for the first time in four decades. There was a mood in the air, and Forrest Gump arguably tapped into that. It is no surprise that the film has been repeatedly cited as one of the greatest conservative movies ever made. The films implicit endorsement of Forrest’s passage through history and its condemnation of Jennie’s parallel journey is undoubtedly part of that.

However, there is something broader at play in all of this. Unlike Forrest, Jennie is acutely politically aware. She understands how the world in a way that Forrest simply does not. She engages with politics in a way that Forrest does not. However, the film repeatedly and forcefully suggests that such awareness brings her nothing but unhappiness. She is trapped in cycles of abuse, and unable to accept happiness even when it is right in front of her. In the world of Forrest Gump, knowledge is a curse. Ignorance is quite literally bliss.

All of this is permeated with a very earnest sensibility, reinforced by Alan Silvestri’s heavey-handed score and the aphorisms that Forrest seems to have ready for every occasion. Indeed, many of the more achingly sincere turns of phrase in Forrest Gump have entered the cultural shorthand. “Life is like a box of chocolates…”, “stupid is as stupid does”, “… and that’s all I have to say about that.” There are points at which Forrest Gump threatens to implode under the sheer weight of the confections heaped upon it, reinforced by its very facile and broad understanding of American history.

Forrest Gump presents the second half of the twentieth century as a sequence of very generic set pieces, often set to the most obvious piece of pop or rock music imaginable. Forrest wades through Vietnam to Fortunate Son, All Along the Watchtower, California Dreaming and For What It’s Worth. To watch Forrest Gump is to think that American history following the Second World War can be reduced to a set of iconography and images; dead presidents, jungle wars, grotty urban decay, ping-pong in foreign countries. Taken at face value, there’s just too much. Forrest Gump is just too earnest and sincere.

However, there is a vague sense of something more lurking at the edge of the frame. It should be noted that director Robert Zemeckis has suggested that Forrest Gump should be read as a “black comedy.” There are certainly moments where this comes close to being true, particularly in the scene introducing Lieutenant Dan. “He was from a long, great military tradition,” Forrest asserts. “Somebody in his family had fought and died in every single American war.” This statement of purpose is accompanied with a montage of Gary Sinese getting killed over and over and over and over.

There is something incredibly bleak in this idea, and in the start of Lieutenant Dan’s arc. Indeed, it could be argued that Lieutenant Dan serves as the narrative counterweight to Jennie rather than Forrest himself. If Jennie is living through a liberal nightmare of the twentieth century, then Lieutenant Dan is enduring a parody of conservative narratives about American exceptionalism. Lieutenant Dan spends most of the film raging against Forrest for denying him a heroic death in Vietnam, for denying him hist destiny – even if that destiny was so empty as to lead to an ignominious death on a foreign field in a pointless war.

Lieutenant Dan is a patriot, but is exploited and forgotten by his country. He winds up in New York City, angry and bitter about the fact that his life has no meaning or purpose. Of course, even accepting that Lieutenant Dan is the counterweight to Jennie does little to suggest the film is even-handed. If Lieutenant Dan is the movie’s conservative avatar, it is perhaps revealing that he gets a happy ending that is denied to Jennie. Jennie dies of an unspecified illness implicitly linked to her liberal ways, while Lieutenant Dan gets a literal set of new legs and a happy family life. (He finds purpose in free enterprise.)

Nevertheless, at the end of the film, Forrest seems to galvinise his own philosophy from a synthesis of the rival philosophies suggested by Lieutenant Dan and by Jennie. “I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it’s both,” Forrest muses in the closest thing that the movie has to a thesis statement. “Maybe both is happening at the same time.” This gets right to the heart of Forrest Gump in an intriguing and compelling manner.

After all, Forrest Gump was a product of the nineties. It arrived at a point in time when the Cold War was over and the United States was economically prosperous, but the political framework that had defined American identity since the end of the Second World War had evaporated. As the world moved towards the new millennium, it seemed like the country was caught in an existential crisis, looking for purpose and meaning in the context of a time that seemed to be lacking both.

This was a time that contemporary commentators described as “the end of history” with a straight face, and Forrest Gump plays into that. The film very literally attempts to engage with history by literally inserting Tom Hanks into historical footage to make the past come alive. Forrest Gump was a movie about trying to inhabit the past, to move through, to connect with it. Forrest Gump tries to make history “real” and “tangible”, as demonstrated by the emphasis that the film places on the character actually touching historical characters and interacting with them physically. (Handing the book, shaking a hand, showing his ass.)

There is also an irony that is woven into this, and there is a sense that the film is acutely aware of this irony at play. Inserting Forrest into the past fundamentally alters the past, distorting and bending the historical record. In its own way, this literalises the way in which memory works; the very act of remembering rewrites the memory recalled. Forrest Gump teases its audience with a similar idea, that inserting Forrest into these sequences renders them uncanny and unnatural. Certainly, there’s something very creepy about the movie’s inability to produce convincing soundalikes for its historical dub.

Of course, it also plays into broader debates during the nineties about the existential challenge posed by postmodernist theory. To hear certain theorists describe it, history might have reached its end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it was also a battleground. Part of this was undoubtedly rooted in the fact that the Second World War and the Holocaust were slipping from living memory as the survivors passed away, two of the most defining events of the twentieth century. This is most likely why the nineties saw so many films trying to preserve that memory; Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers.

However, there were also broader debates about the nature of history. Figures like David Irving brough Holocaust denial into the mainstream by arguing against accepted historical truths. There were debates about the celebration of the Nazi war criminals who had helped to build the American space programme. A Smithsonian exhibit commemorating the Enola Gay was deemed massively controversial for daring to question the necessity of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. There were debates about how to teach American history, particularly regarding Native and African Americans.

These elements all add a great deal of context to Forrest Gump‘s tour of the second half of the twentieth century. History was fragile, and Forrest Gump seemed to demonstrate precisely how fragile by having its protagonist move between the frames. It presented the audience with something that was distinctly uncanny, in a manner that seems to prefigure modern anxieties about the easy manipulation of the digital record using advanced technology to literally rewrite footage. Forrest Gump‘s insertion of Tom Hanks into history looks almost quaint in the era of so-called “deep fakes.”

It should be noted that the existential ennui of the nineties found expression in a number of forms, most notably in the work of people like Chris Carter or Oliver Stone. Movies like JFK and shows like The X-Files presented audiences with baroque histories of the twentieth century that promised to make sense of the madness and chaos that defined the modern world by tracing its roots back and suggesting that it was all part of some grander plan. Conspiracy theory became one of the defining narratives of the nineties, with the idea of secret cabals and elaborate charades entering the cultural mainstream.

Of course, conspiracy theories had been around for centuries, with Richard Hofstadter arguing that paranoia had been a fundamental part of the American character dating back to the nation’s founding. At the same time, the nineties brought those notions into the mainstream, with phrases like “new world order” becoming part of the cultural lexicon. The Clintons were accused of having been party to secretive murders, while the family themselves alluded to “a vast right-wing conspiracy” operating against them.

In the nineties, conspiracy theories didn’t even need to be related to politics or history. They just had to assure people that the world made sense and that everything had a purpose, that there was somebody behind the wheel of the care. It didn’t matter if that purpose was a bizarre proto-reality television show like The Truman Show or a computer simulation like The Matrix or even a clockwork experiment like Dark City. All that mattered was that there was some grander plan, and that somebody knew what was happening and why.

Forrest Gump is a fascinating film because of how it plays with that idea. It is a movie that fundamentally understands the audience’s yearning for purpose and meaning, crafting a story that structures a narrative from the chaos of the second half of the twentieth century. The film is literally based around the image of Forrest sitting on a bench and telling his story to anybody who will listen. Forrest is trying to find a way to turn a turbulent historical reality into a comforting narrative. Forrest is offering his own aphorism-soaked benign interpretation of conspiracy theory, where he is the force holding the universe together.

However, in positioning Forrest as the thread that ties the past fifty years of history together, Forrest Gump seems to be drawing attention to the ridiculousness of that central conceit. There is something surprisingly bleak in the implication that the only character who could convincingly navigate the hectic trade winds of the second half of the twentieth century was an idiot with absolutely no idea what was going on. Forrest Gump seems to suggest that there is simply no way to make sense of everything that has happened, no way to attribute all of these crazy events to some logical process.

If Forrest Gump is to be read as an all-American fairy tale, there is a decidedly cynical element to proceedings. The film repeatedly emphasises the arbitrary and cruel nature of events, most obviously in the recurring motif of having Forrest draw attention to the repeated assassinations attempts made on key American figures during that turbulent half-century – the shootings of John and Bobby Kennedy, George Wallace, Ronald Reagan. (There is, of course, something very revealing in the two biggest assassinations missing from Forrest’s history of gun violence; Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.)

In this way, Forrest Gump plays almost as a self-aware parody of itself, suggesting that the avatar of the American century is a kind-hearted and well-intentioned idiot with little awareness of his surroundings. Perhaps it reflects how America (and perhaps any world power) might wish to see itself, as an innocent swept up in forces that exist beyond its control. Forrest Gump reduces some of the greatest and most turbulent events of the twentieth century to a punchline, with a character who does not even try to understand the mechanics at play.

Within Forrest Gump, for example, the Vietnam War is presented as something that just… happened. There is no discussion of why it happened. Forrest never questions why he has been sent over seas to fight on foreign soil. There is no discussion of why it has to continue to happen, beyond Gump’s willingness to follow orders. In the world of Forrest Gump, the Vietnam War is hinted to be something that just happened to America, in the same way that many Americans treat terrorism as equivalent to a natural disaster rather than as the outcome of various complicated historical forces.

At the same time, there is just the faintest hint of irony in how Forrest Gump presents all this. The closest that the movie comes to suggesting a justification for this war is in the discussion of what Forrest and Bubba might want to do after the war. “Y’know, I bet there’s shrimp all in these waters,” Bubba observes. “They tell me these Vietnams is good shrimp. You know, after we win this war, and we take over everything we can get American shrimpers to come on here and shrimp these waters. We’ll just shrimp all the time, man. So much shrimp, why, you wouldn’t believe it.”

There is something very revealing in that line, and in Forrest and Bubba’s inability to understand that the Vietnamese might not be entirely happy with the Americans coming to “take over everything” and to “get American shrimpers to come on here and shrimp these waters” along with other exploitation of the country and its people. It’s a small moment, but it hints at the dissonance that exists between Forrest’s happy-go-lucky attitude and the context in which he exists. There is a certain cynicism about American foreign policy, and the uncritical assimilation of that.

Similarly, there is perhaps something similarly barbed in the reveal that Forrest got rich by investing in “some kind of fruit company”, an obvious allusion to Apple. Forrest is a man clearly unable to understand the mechanics of money and the logic of business, but somehow triumphs on the stock market. This seems in some small way an indictment of the uncertainty and absurdity of capitalism, revealing that profit is not based on skill or knowledge, but luck and timing. Forrest succeeds, but only by virtue of being in precisely the right place at precisely the right time.

These traces of irony are not enough to completely undercut the movie’s overly earnest sensibility or to completely scrub away the more uncomfortable aspects of its political perspective about women and minorities. Indeed, even at its most cynical, Forrest Gump is constructed in such a way that it can be (and has been) read entirely earnestly. Regardless of the hints of something altogether more unsettling and confrontational lurking beneath the surface, Forrest Gump is a film that has been designed so that it can be read entirely earnestly as a fable about the virtue of ignorance.

At the same time, there is always just enough ambiguity there, just enough nuance, just enough grit, that I can’t bring myself to dismiss Forrest Gump out of hand. It remains a fascinating prism into nineties popular culture, a snapshot of the era with just a hint of self-awareness. Watching Forrest Gump, there’s always an implication that the movie knows more than it is letting on.

3 Responses

  1. Thought provoking and insightful as always! Fascinating read. Thank you!

  2. “It is no surprise that the film has been repeatedly cited as one of the greatest conservative movies ever made.”

    I’ll gladly take this movie over the likes of the PureFlix propaganda such as “God’s Not Dead” or “Let there be light”. Jenny was not the victim of sexual abuse from her father because of her political views. There was no literal condemnation of her views through dialogue and neither was she a caricature. And most importantly, she doesn’t suddenly embrace conservatism in the end and is cured of her disease. (Or run over with a car for being a Liberal.) Nor does the film completely misunderstand what a liberal as if written from a conservative that has never known a liberal.

    Even as the “Republican Revolution” was taking place in the time period of Forrest Gump, both sides were capable of listening to each other. The new era of echo chambers has caused such a detachment from one American to the other results in movies that make you wonder if they even live in the same country. They tell a story about a faux-Atheist without any understanding of what an Atheist is, and then Sean Hannity praises it for being the most “realistic” portrayal of an Atheist he’s ever seen. Strange times we live in.

    • I mean, that’s a very low bar to set. 🙂 (I say, even as somebody with a great deal of affection for Forrest Gump, despite its flaws.)

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