#12 in my ranking of Robert Zemeckis films.
Gosh, some people really love this movie, and there’s no way to convince me that a lot of that isn’t due to nostalgia on the part of the audience. The main character’s journey functions as a survey of the 60s, prime material for Baby Boomers to relive their early days in heartwarming package. I…did not live through the 60s. I do not share this love for the period, so I think that explains some of my more muted reaction. It’s a fine little movie with a strong central character and very good technical merits (not that I would expect anything less from Robert Zemeckis), but the survey elements of the history end up feeling shallow to me.
So, Forrest Gump is sitting on a park bench in Savannah, waiting for the bus, and he begins to tell his life story to the quiet nurse sitting next to him. He’s a man of less than average intelligence who has lived a more than average life. He influenced Elvis’s dancing when he came to stay at Forrest’s mother’s bed and breakfast house in Alabama once. He played for Bear Bryant on the University of Alabama’s football team. He interacted with the first black students at the University of Alabama right after the National Guard forced George Wallace to allow them in. He shook hands with JFK. He went to Vietnam. He got shot. He played ping pong in China. He shook hands with LBJ and showed him his butt when he came back. He participated in the large protest around the Reflecting Pool. He shook hands with Nixon. He called security on the Watergate perpetrators. And he did it all while staying his normal, optimistic, and simple self, changing those around him rather than himself.
As played by Tom Hanks, Forrest is just the perennial innocent. He walks into every situation convinced of the good graces of those around him, and, like Pollyanna, he tends to just make those around him happier.
In some ways, this movie reminds me of Doctor Zhivago where Yuri Zhivago got shoved from one major historical event to another, but where Yuri Zhivago never felt like he had any agency, Forrest always feels like he’s proactively doing things after he gets shoved somewhere new. The best case of this may be the peace protest in DC. Forrest is wandering around after having shown the bullet wound on his butt to the President of the United States, just sightseeing, when he gets literally shoved into a line of veterans who are protesting the war. Forrest, being the best dressed of the bunch, gets shoved to the front of the line and asked to deliver a speech. The speech gets cut off so that even the audience in the movie can’t hear it, but the reaction from the guy who introduced him and stood next to him tells the whole story. Forrest said something that touched the hearts of those around him. I imagine the speech was intentionally not heard because it could have split the audience of the movie, and that’s not what Zemeckis wanted from a heart-warming trip through the 60s, so keeping it unheard prevents any kind of audience blowback. So, while I do feel that it works as a scene and accomplishes what it intends to accomplish, I also feel like it takes an easy way out to make it as broadly appealing as possible.
The issue with the thinness of the telling of the 60s really became evident to me once Forrest reached Vietnam, though. His introduction to the country is a very largely set small scene of an introduction with Lieutenant Dan. Outside, on the coast, with 60s music blaring and a bunch of helicopters flying around. This is Zemeckis channeling Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, providing nothing new about Vietnam cinematically in the process. What Gump does is good in this section of the film, the introduction of Lieutenant Dan and the death of Bubba are very well handled, but Vietnam as a whole feels shallow here. It became the same with every major event that Gump came across. What Gump did was entertaining, but the underlying history was just so thin that it becomes kind of frustrating. As a dose of nostalgia, I can understand the appeal, but since I don’t share in the nostalgia I don’t share in the appreciation.
I’ve spent too much time complaining.
The point of Gump’s journey is that he makes the world a better place in little contributions. That’s most evident through the character Jenny, the girl he grew up with. She was abused by her father and went down the rabbit hole of the counterculture (providing a surprisingly negative view of the counterculture in a Hollywood movie along the way) while Forrest keeps popping up and offering to be the rock she needs. Built up by his mother’s simple lessons from Nowhere, Alabama, Forrest is the good person that Jenny can eventually fall back on for support. In a way, Jenny and Forrest having a child represents two halves of America coming together after the 60s to raise the next generation.
The other major character that Gump helps is Lieutenant Dan. Raised in a military family with a long history of dying for America from the Revolution onward through the Second World War (the montage skips a few conflicts along the way), Dan gets robbed of his chance to die by Gump who saves him. Dan, robbed of his destiny, descends into drink becoming a carbon-copy visually of Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. It’s through Gump’s positivity about moving forward with his plan on buying the shrimping boat in honor of Bubba and working it to success that brings Dan out of his funk.
A note about the special effects. Many of the visual effects are very good and still hold up, especially the crowd scene around the Reflecting Pool and everything about Lieutenant Dan’s missing legs, but the stuff that combines Gump into existing historical footage has not held up. In the mid-90s, seeing Gump in the same visual space with some level of conviction as JFK, LBJ, and John Lennon was remarkable, but the effects have aged really badly. Heads float on shoulder unnaturally while the mouths are awful and move incredibly artificially, often having trouble even matching up with the words being said. Mouths are hard to replicate with computer effects, visual effects houses still have trouble with it, but it just looks terrible here. This is largely the same technology that made Meryl Streep’s head backwards in Death Becomes Her, but it’s far more ambitious with not enough advancements in the technology, which is unfortunate. All it really does it take one out of the moment that should be funny, but it shouldn’t happen at all.
Overall Forrest Gump is a nice movie that takes the audience through a survey of 60s America with a likeable main character who always tries to make everyone around him better. It’s an appealing journey that’s easy to sit through and often quite funny, but it also seems to ride heavily on nostalgia that I don’t share, limiting its impact on me and potentially anyone else who doesn’t share in the same outlook on the 60s.