It is perhaps the most maligned Best Picture Oscar winner of all time. While Sam Mendes’ equally misjudged American Beauty gets an equal number of harsh dismissals, it doesn’t have the artistic albatross of beating Quentin Tarnatino’s Pulp Fiction hanging off its hefty gold statue’s neck. Indeed, Spielberg protégé Robert Zemeckis will perhaps never live down the fact that Academy voters favored his Establishment romp through history over the Reservoir Dogs‘ auteur’s genre-bending genius. Even now, some 15 years later, the critical throwdown still gets Messageboard Nation in a froth. For some, there is no forgiving the meandering manchild haphazardly wandering his way across the entire post-modern cultural spectrum. To them, there is no defending Zemeckis, his movie, or its motives.
Not even a new 15th Anniversary Box Set, fashioned like a collection of yummy confections (just like ‘Momma’ spoke about) will ease the controversy. Indeed, since it became a monster hit both in theaters and in the minds of award season voters, Forrest Gump fails about every test of cinematic classicism. It feels dated and of its era, the optimism of a pre-Dot.Com bubble burst awash in every eager, overly earnest narrative beat. It has the feel and focus of a determined epic, something that everyone involved believes is important without any of the onscreen scope or power to prove otherwise. Even worse, it’s become part of the standard bearers of satire, lampoons and spoofs of Tom Hanks’ take on the title character driving any available artistic measure deep into the ground. Oh, and did we mention it beat Pulp Fiction for the 1995 Academy Award?
Perhaps time will never be completely kind to this film, but the overall outrage over its existence is way overblown. In truth, Forrest Gump is a fine motion picture – nay, even at times, a great one. Sure, the whole feather motif is heavy handed and syrupy and the title moron as innocent everyman can get so saccharine and cloying as to almost cause diabetes. But Zemeckis is not some hack, manipulating his audience with false sentiment and unearned emotions. Everything about Forrest Gump feels natural and organic to the story being told. Indeed, it’s the tall tale itself, and not the way that Zemeckis presents it, that should cause the most consternation. Over the course of five seminal decades in the post-war “adulthood” of the United States, this movie takes the side of the jingoists and the patriots – and never once parts company.
For those unfamiliar with the narrative, the film follows the adventures of a Southern rube named Forrest Gump. Loved by his Momma and shunned by the community, his only friend is a poor abused girl named Jenny. As he grows, our hero is deemed ‘retarded’, but his domineering parent won’t let society treat him as different. Capable of running at amazing speeds, Forrest gets through high school and into college on his amazing athletic skills. After graduation, he fights in Viet Nam and becomes an army ping-pong champ. Out of the service, he hooks up with former commander Lieutenant Dan, and the two go into the shrimping business together. When that turns from a bust to a bustling success, Forrest tries to find solace in his former friend, Jenny. Yet their relationship has their bumps and bad patches. Befallen by tragedy and a last act attempt at escape, Forrest resigns himself to being alone – that is, until Jenny comes along with some sad/glad news.
The most important aspect of the story, however, is the way in which Forrest seeming steps into the annals of US history time and time again. He watches as George Wallace tries to stop the integration of Alabama’s schools, meets Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. He attends an anti-war rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the height of the ’60s, and even inspires John Lennon to write “Imagine.” From suggesting the successful bumper sticker “Shit Happens” to inspiring the iconic yellow “Have a Nice Day” smiley face, Forrest Gump is the reason the country forges ahead through turmoil, strife, and illegal break-ins at the Watergate hotel (that’s right – he rats the burglars out). Between his personal pitfalls and his professional accomplishments, Forrest is the American Dream personified – and all inside a naïve country bumpkin who barely manages of 70 IQ.
In the telling commentary track included as part of this DVD release, Zemeckis tells you all you need to know about Forrest Gump‘s continued contemptuous reputation – and shockingly, its hidden political agenda. According to the director, the hero represents all that’s good, noble, loyal, and honorable about the stereotypical US citizen. Was he literate enough to coin it, Forrest would be first with the phrase “Our Nation – Love it or Leave it”. He never grows suspicious of the government or its goals, never questions authority or its perversion of power. Instead, Forrest falls lockstep into what every little boy and girl is told about being part of the civic fabric, and it pays off in wealth, property, and (after a while) personal happiness.
Then there is Jenny, clearly crafted to represent the counterculture. She is the true outside, the sexually abused Cupie doll who believes in all the beatnik/hippy promises and winds up a strung-out cocaine casualty attempting suicide and struggling for self esteem. She buys into Dylan and Baez’s foolish notions about art changing the world. She seeks dignity in the struggles of the anti-War and Black Panther movements. She loses herself in drugs and debauchery – and when all else fails her (and it always does) her retarded Rock of Gibraltar is always around to kiss the karmic boo-boo and make it all better.
Toss in Lieutenant Dan as destiny deferred by Forrest’s optimism and Momma as a less than virginal Mary and you’ve got the Bible as written by polarizing pre-millennial Neo-Cons. In fact, why Gump is not the poster boy for every Palin and Buchanan on the pundit circuit is astonishing – especially when Zemeckis admits that he is, indeed, the dimwit who finds a way to breeze through the more complicated parts of life. None of this really detracts from the movie itself, mind you. Tom Hanks still gives a heck of a performance, reminding the viewer of his ability to truly get lost in a meaty role. Robin Wright Penn is still underused as the object of his affection, the Job-like Jenny. Gary Sinise is all fire and battle weary brimstone as Forrest’s reborn disciple, and Haley Joel Osment is the best second Messiah a mentally challenged Jesus could ever hope for.
Pushing aside all freak show philosophizing for a moment and looking at the main reason we go to the movies, Forrest Gump definitely provides a powerful entertainment experience. We get caught up in its rooting for the underdog storyline, hiss when our hero is bullied, and cheer when he finds a way to overcome some obvious self-inflicted adversity. We marvel at the bows to pop culture (young Forrest – in leg braces – teaches Elvis to dance) as well as the nods to noted events in our country’s past. Sure, the ending turns all treacly when Jenny reappears bearing baby, but by then we’ve come to expect such schmaltz from this film. Zemeckis is no hack, but he’s definitely made better movies in his career. Indeed, Forrest Gump can’t really hold a candle to the value inherent in Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
That doesn’t mean it didn’t deserve the Oscar, though. Hollywood is not noted for championing the unusual and the groundbreaking, and still they gave Tarantino and his co-writer Roger Avary trophies for Best Original Screenplay that year. In their mind, Forrest Gump was the more Academy Award appropriate offering, and they were probably right. It’s a movie that plays by the rules instead of deconstructing them. It was a recognizable type instead of a revisionist genre reassembly. It was uplifting instead of complicated, wholesome and heartfelt instead of violent and vicious. Besides, did you really think a movie that has a major character raped by another man would wind up walking up the red carpet that year? If anything, Forrest Gump was designed and destined to take home the gold. It makes the legacies of both movies all the better.