There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was, effectively, a subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.
How many movies are you ever likely to see where Tom Hanks plays a Klansman?* I’d warrant this is and always will be the only one, and it occurs in the first five minutes. It was at that point, on first viewing, that I was wide open to whatever wickedly satirical barbs Zemeckis – at that stage of his career still having a robust track record, what with a monster hit of an incest-baiting time-travel movie, a clever sequel that gave audiences a hard time, an anarchic loony-tunes live-action/animation hybrid and a star-laden effects comedy taking pot-shots at the excesses of beauty culture – had in store.
Alas, Zemeckis didn’t quite live up to those opening moments, and indeed, the Zelig-like everyman conceit of Forrest appearing at notable moments from history and influencing pop-culture figures and events is haphazard at best; this tech-first approach later saw the director crowbar Bill Clinton into Contact for no good reason other than he could, and eventually pushed him into the motion-capture business for an extremely patchy decade. From which he has never recovered, quality-wise.
Indeed, linking Forrest by lineage to a confederate general seems audacious – Gump is named after relative General Nathan Bedford Forrest, proponent of racism and slavery, and by implication, it’s in his genes. But then we have Forrest explain Momma Gump’s reasons for naming him thus: “Sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense”. It’s a curiously spineless backtracking on the barb, rather offensive in how faint it is (“not making any sense” is a very mild way to describe lynching), and one wonders if there was a version of the screenplay where Momma was a proud southern racist with no subtext to naming her son that he wouldn’t have a chance of understanding.
That may seem unlikely, but Gump frequently falls victim to lurches in tonality, which would be much less at odds had screenwriter Eric Roth maintained a clear distinguishing line in the irony of the things Forrest says/does and what they’re supposed to mean in the movie. Roth adapted Winston Groom’s 1986 novel, which most appraisers report displays a more uncompromisingly cynical streak; Zemeckis and Roth foregrounded the love story – if you want to call it that; one might suggest it’s a deeply cynical reading of love itself, of unrequited longing and ultimate capitulation to practicalities, but too late – and changed Forrest from an idiot savant to a plain idiot.
There was a tête-à-tête organised between Zemeckis and Tarantino, post-Oscar glory, where Zemeckis was disappointingly – or expectedly? – unnuanced in his insights into the movie while admitting to “black comedy and tragedy and irony” (and asserting “it’s not a melodramatic, saccharine story”). Tarantino was evidently most keyed into what he saw as Gump’s transgressive side (“But the comedy element running through there – subversive is the wrong word – but there is a big edge to it. A movie about that guy as the No. 1 guy of America of the last twenty years has got a bite”). But if you look at Zemeckis’ post-Gump movies, you’d think the guy with that streak had been lobotomised.
Zemeckis suggested that “Gump is a completely decent character, always true to his word. He has no agenda and no opinion about anything except Jenny, his mother and God”. Except that, arguably, this absence renders him indecent. He has no capacity for self-interrogation or self-reflection. He has a “virtuous” capacity for violence, turning on a knife edge when Jenny is threatened, and he is revealed as the perfect killing machine under battle conditions – we don’t see him kill anyone, but if he’s such a great soldier, there can be no doubt he does – just as he is the perfect sportsman; all the things that make America great are exemplified by an imbecile who will do as he is told without pause to consider whether it’s the right thing or not (“He’s a goddam genius” so says his drill sergeant).
It’s entirely difficult to conceive that anyone could view the movie as a straightforward conservative text with such boulders strewn in their path. Likewise, Forrest makes his fortune not through business acumen or hard graft, but by an act of God and incognisance to his colleague’s investments (in Apple). There’s nothing cute about Forrest’s obliviousness to Jenny’s sexual abuse, yet Zemeckis and Roth play it for sick laughs through Forrest’s undiscerning gaze (“He was a very loving man. He was always kissing and touching her and her sisters”); it’s a twisted piece of writing, coming from the same dark impulse as Forrest’s ignorance of the implications of the Klan. Forrest is too stupid to be racist (yeah, I know), but also too stupid to recognise child abuse.
Forrest Gump: He was from a great military tradition. Someone from his family had fought and died in every single American war.
Gump’s Vietnam sequence is probably where the film flows best, and since the romance never really works, as it can’t, it’s probably not coincidental that there’s little of Jenny here. Forrest is introduced to Mykelti Williamson’s Bubba (“my best good friend” who is, comparatively, much smarter than Forrest) and Sergeant Dang (Gary Sinise), the latter hilariously characterised as coming from a family of soldiers who died in battle (“I guess you could say he had a lot to live up to”). Dang is Bob Hoskins to Forrest’s Roger Rabbit, effectively an actor playing it straight to a cartoon, and generally, the movie gets its most potent fuel from those reacting strongly to Gump’s relentless impassivity.
Sinise is great, but it’s a mystery why double amputee Dang comes round to seeing the value in his life, other than that the screenplay requires Forrest to have an unearthly impact on all he meets (is it a coincidence that Forrest is described as a gardener, as was Peter Sellers’ Chance in Being There?) Zemeckis and Roth simultaneously want him to be an ineffectual idiot and an aspirational figure, so that’s what he becomes, fuelled by Alan Silvestri’s insipidly uplifting score (and accompanying feather).
Forrest Gump: Sorry I had a fight in your black panther party.
Forrest is oblivious to the perils of Nam so escapes unscathed (“We would take these real long walks”). Nam itself is an extended pop promo, accompanied by Hendrix and Buffalo Springfield in scenes that surely gave Oliver Stone an embolism. The contrasting peace movement is dealt short shrift, but charitably, I don’t think this is the movie being overtly conservative, any more than I think Jenny dying of a mysterious disease bearing all the hallmarks of AIDS is her punishment for leading a profligate lifestyle; we’ve established that you only excel in the military if you’re an imbecile, and that those who actually care about the welfare of their men don’t escape unscathed (Dang who, notably and inclusively, doesn’t hate Asians, as he ends up married to one, unless she was mail order; the cynical side of the movie absolutely would go there). There’s no reason to think that any movement, even an equal and opposite one isn’t similarly flawed and manipulative. Indeed, it’s central to the movie that, Forrest being an island of integrity, anything that impinges on him as a force has to be.
Jenny: I bet that never happened in Home Ec.
This applies as much to Jenny, who has led a sad and conflicted life, one where she has sexually abused Forrest himself (“I want to apologise for anything I ever did to you because I was messed up for a long time”); it’s a slightly facile argument, but consider a gender-reversed Forrest Gump with the same sequences between Forrest and Jenny. Not that Jenny’s death isn’t cynical. She has to go, so as to lend weight to Forrest’s abiding virtuousness; she dies to cast light on the beauty of being vacant, empty Forrest. Who comments “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is”. Are we supposed to think Forrest actually does? Perhaps in the same way as a devoted hound.
It’s probably evident that I wasn’t swayed by Forrest Gump’s motions towards the emotionally affecting. But I was nevertheless fascinated by many of its choices, given how much it has been embraced as a great, life-affirming pinnacle of populist entertainment. One where the main character’s mother is required to prostitute herself to ensure his education, as well as the other various other antithetical impulses outlined above.
Then there are the flashy Zelig sequences, celebrated at the time but which, for the most part, prove rather strained or fall flat. An idiot is responsible for great advances in pop culture (Elvis’ moves), bringing Nixon down by accident (the Watergate break in), shares a talk show stage with John Lennon (painfully extraneous). And then there’s the borderline non-sequitur bit with Johnson asking to see Forrest’s buttocks; it’s like a surrealist Borat. Shit happens. Some of the movie entirely fails to elicit the intended response (the unintended comedy of “Run, Forrest, run”) but is also a reminder of Zemeckis’ fondness for repetition to underline the point or theme (Forrest is later similarly chased as a teenager: see the playfulness of time zones and perspectives in Back to the Future Parts I and II and III).
Hanks might actually be the key to Forrest Gump stumbling as a satire. Once he’s on board, his affable sincerity instructs the tone (it’s difficult to imagine the same result with potential Forrests Chevy Chase or Bill Murray, although, having seen Phenomenon and I am Sam, it’s possible something even more excruciating would have resulted from John Travolta or Sean Penn).
At some point, Roth and Zemeckis decided they wanted the audience to feel for an empty vessel, and so there’s the poetry of the passing of time and seasons to the indifference of the protagonist. He’s an aloof god in his own way, unassailable and unreachable. The problem is, it makes the picture as a whole inconsistent and dissatisfying. The insightful and acerbic material can’t escape from the opposite tug towards the sentimental. A 2004 Entertainment Weekly piece asserted “One half of folks see it as an artificial piece of pop melodrama, while everyone else raves that it’s sweet as a box of chocolates”. But it’s actually both, and neither, and more besides. And less too.
*Addendum 03/08/22: Of course, Hanks as an actual Klansman would count as the most innocuous of his crimes. In which regard, he’s also now every bit as much history as Forrest’s fictional ancestor.