Forrest Gump at 30: a wildly popular movie that remains as light as a feather

Estimated read time 6 min read

In the 30 years since becoming a box-office phenomenon, en route to winning six Oscars, including best picture, director, actor and adapted screenplay, Forrest Gump has settled into the culture as a significant achievement, canonized by its induction into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry – and, to a slightly lesser extent, by the few dozen Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurants worldwide. Other best picture nominees may be more beloved, like The Shawshank Redemption, or influential, like Pulp Fiction, but none that captured the public imagination on quite the same scale.

And yet it’s still worth asking, after all this time: What is the deal with this movie? What is it actually trying to say?

These are not rhetorical questions, at least not entirely. Adapted loosely from Winston Groom’s picaresque novel about an unlikely savant’s era-spanning brushes with history, Forrest Gump has become of the great Rorschach blots of American cinema, a film so studiously apolitical that it reflect whatever ideology you wish to project on it. The National Review has cited it multiple times as one of the best conservative movies of all time, but that interpretation mostly feels like filling in a vacuum that doesn’t exist in, say, an Oliver Stone movie, where the point of view is much firmer. It’s a weird case where you search haplessly for a reason why it was made yet it resonates deeply with millions of people. What a long, strange trip it has been.

The most straightforward explanation for Forrest Gump’s success is how readily audiences lock into the sweet, innocent, off-kilter charms of Gump himself, an affable guy from rural Alabama who was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, but possesses a milder temperament than his namesake. In Groom’s novel, Forrest is more on-the-spectrum, with a low IQ and a massive frame that makes him seem oafish, but who likes Mark Twain, is a natural at chess, and can do enough math in his head to be recruited by Nasa. Eric Roth’s screenplay turns him more into a lobotomized Zelig, drifting through a consequential stretch of American history with decency and pure intentions, but with the processing speed of a vintage Texas Instruments TI-99.

Yet Tom Hanks, at the height of his powers, sells Forrest as a big-hearted adventurer who holds onto his innocence during a time when the country was necking at the drive-in. Roth’s Forrest is more into Curious George than Mark Twain, and he doesn’t learn so much as accumulate experience, with fate guiding him along like the feather that lands gently on his lap in the opening minutes. “Life is like a box of chocolates,” he tells anyone who will listen at a bus stop in Savannah, Georgia in 1981. “You never know what you’re gonna get.” And so, through flashback, Forrest tells the story of his upbringing as a boy who loved his mother (Sally Field) and persevered despite a 75 IQ and leg braces to correct a curvature in his spine. His only friend as a kid is Jenny, an abused child who grows into a young woman, played by Robin Wright, whose journey is as active and traumatic as his is passive and glancing.

Forrest’s narration is the film’s most effective device, offering a cockeyed view of history while freeing Roth and director Robert Zemeckis to tell his story in a rush of episodes that whisk him through the 60s and 70s and often have him photobombing his way into major events. His herky-jerky leg inspires a young Elvis Presley. His supernatural talent as a runner earns him a football scholarship at the University of Alabama under Bear Bryant and a cameo in George Wallace’s infamous stand in 1963 to block integration at the school. (Forrest picks up Vivian Malone Jones’ notebook for her.) His eagerness to please makes him a good soldier in the US Army and a friend to fellow simpleton Bubba (Mykelti Williamson), who can’t stop talking about his shrimping operation in Louisiana.

1994, FORREST GUMPSALLY FIELD & TOM HANKS Character(s): Mrs. Gump & Forrest Gump Film ‘FORREST GUMP’ (1994) Directed By ROBERT ZEMECKIS 23 June 1994 AFA3125 Allstar/PARAMOUNT (USA 1994) **WARNING** This Photograph is for editorial use only and is the copyright of PARAMOUNT and/or the Photographer assigned by the Film or Production Company & can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above Film. A Mandatory Credit To PARAMOUNT is required. The Photographer should also be credited when known. No commercial use can be granted without written authority from the Film Company.View image in fullscreen

Much of Forrest’s life is defined by chance, like his peculiar (and lucrative) triumphs as a ping-pong champion, and his accidental appearance as a hero among hippies at a massive anti-war demonstration on the Washington Mall. (He was just out for a stroll.) But unflagging loyalty give him direction, too: He takes up shrimping as a promise to Bubba, he attaches himself to the angry and wounded Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), and, most of all, he seeks out Jenny in a perpetual effort to recapture the “peas and carrots” closeness of their youths, even as Jenny’s life starts dark and gets darker. He’s uncomprehending and she’s seen too much. They’re the perfect match.

Zemeckis directs Forrest Gump with a combination of the effortless pop culture wizardry of his best films, like I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and the cold obsession with technique that has recently swerved his career into the uncanny valley. The tinkering necessary to place Forrest alongside John Lennon on The Dick Cavett Show isn’t worth the thin joke of him inspiring the lyrics to Imagine, for example, nor is Forrest dropping his drawers to show LBJ his bullet wound before collecting the Medal of Honor. More annoying still, Zemeckis’ once-over-lightly treatment of American history, barely fit for an Oklahoma public school, gets propped up by a selection of the most obvious music cues imaginable. (A Vietnam sequence set to CCR’s Fortunate Son? Associating hippies war protestors with Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth? Now I’ve seen everything!)

And yet, Forrest Gump does wander off into unexpected tangents, like its odd obsession with political assassinations or Forrest’s three-and-a-half year run around the United States, which works here almost like a national head-clearing exercise after a decade of monumental changes. With Hanks in the lead, it’s hard not to connect with Forrest’s childlike vulnerability and need, not to mention as his resilience, and feel hopeful about his good nature persisting despite all that he has experienced.

It’s an inviting fantasy. It’s also as unbearably light as a feather.


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