Forrest Gump, Robert Zemickis

Double Take: ‘Forrest Gump’ (1994)

You have to do your best with what God gave you. How well did Robert Zemeckis do with Forrest Gump? Double Take pries open this chocolate box of questionable taste.

Forrest Gump
Robert Zemeckis
6 July 1994

Steve Leftridge: Okay, this one strikes me as different from the other films we’ve discussed here at Double Take. Sure, it’s easy to see why Forrest Gump made our Great 500 list, as the film’s accolades are a mile long, including the Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Screenplay. Critics dug it, for the most part, and it’s one of the most commercially popular films of all time.

So why do you dislike it, Mr. Pick? Are you one who has trouble fully embracing art that is too ubiquitously gargantuan in popularity? Are you offended by the play-it-for-laughs depiction of someone with cognitive delays? Are the historical rewrites too hokey? Or is the movie just too darn sentimental? What is it that bugs you the most about Forrest Gump?

Steve Pick: Ha! I don’t remember telling you I hated Forrest Gump. I hate it, but I thought I was being as noncommittal as possible when we discussed doing this column. Oh, well, the cat’s out of the bag, so let’s dig in.

Why do I hate thee, Forrest Gump? Well, frankly, because stupid is as stupid does. From the insufferable tracking shot of the floating feather to the undercutting of historical actions by placing a non-entity in important situations, the most treacly music score in film history, the most obvious pop song cues, the complete lack of human personality in the love interest, the unearned sentimentality, the pointlessness of it all, the intensely conservative mindset behind it.

Oh, sure, Tom Hanks sells the role, the supporting cast is good enough, and the film is workmanlike in its storytelling, but gee whiz, it’s even worse than I remember it was when I saw it in the theater originally. Far from being one of the 500 best motion pictures, I don’t think it’s in the top 50,000.

So, what’s your opinion? Do you have any reactions on the opposite side of my ledger? Why should we take this thing seriously?

Leftridge: I knew it! You didn’t tell me that you hated Forrest Gump. But as someone who co-writes film criticism with you, I surmised that you hated it. However, I did underestimate the sheer intensity of your hatred. Not in the top 50,000? Wow, that opinion would make you one of the most ardent Gump despisers of all time.

I could pile on with the Gump ire if I wanted to, but since you asked me to offer an opposing view, I will say that I do find the film charming at times, that I remain impressed with the ambitious scope of the filmmaking, and that it covers a lot of narrative ground: it’s a period piece, a historical drama, a war movie, a sports movie, a love story, a buddy comedy, a coming-of-age story, a satire, a tragedy, a family movie, etc.

Now, I realize that you probably see this variety as one of the film’s flaws. Still, I argue that Forrest Gump’s quick-hitting greatest-hits narrative is, while flawed, highly entertaining and sometimes pretty funny. Much of the film is, of course, satirical, having some fun with the cultural eras that Forrest stumbles through.

Didn’t you think it was funny when Jenny’s hippie boyfriend blames his abusive behavior toward Jenny on his righteous political anger: “It’s just this war, and that lying son of a bitch, Johnson”? Or is this (making light of anti-war protestors) an example of what you call the film’s “intensely conservative mindset”?

Pick: I’ll give you the humor in that line, and I’ll even concede that, despite my hatred of this flick, it has entertainment value. Maybe I’ll upgrade my ranking and put it in the top 25,000, though I may have to rewatch a couple on the bubble to make sure.

But yeah, I do find the treatment of hippies, and of Jenny in particular, to be intensely conservative. The anti-war movement was a genuinely necessary reaction to a horrible situation. Robert Zemeckis does a good job mixing and matching Coppola and Kubrick war footage to show us just how ugly it was for the soldiers fighting in Vietnam, but even there, he doesn’t even hint at what it did to the Vietnamese. The strongest political statement he makes in that whole sequence is the 3rd-grade level irony of Lieutenant Dan emphasizing good foot care before he loses both his legs.

Meanwhile, every time we see Jenny on the home front, she’s shown to be part of a nightmarishly incompetent and selfish liberal youth group. Zemeckis doesn’t care about Jenny nearly as much as Forrest does. All her actions are supposed to be explained away by the fact she was molested by her father when young. This implies that those involved in progressive causes were merely trying to repair a primal wound and not interested in making the world a better place.

I’ll also grant you that Zemeckis isn’t bad at shifting genre gears as the movie goes on, but I refuse to give him any credit for an accomplishment that has such a limited payoff. I suppose we should take away from this film that anybody can succeed by simply staying true to a series of motherly maxims and plugging away at idealized images of what your friends tell you the first day they meet you. True love comes whenever the rest of the world refuses to sit by you on a bus, and you find the only person who sees the value in you. Of course, that person is fated to die young, but at least you’ll get a Fortune cover and a son out of the deal.

Seriously, what plausible reason are we given to root for Forrest when he admits that many of his actions are for no particular reason?

Leftridge: We’re supposed to root for Forrest because he’s sweet, simple-hearted, and nonjudgmental, and loyal. And we’re supposed to root for him because he has severe disabilities that he overcomes. He overcomes them so dramatically that he becomes: an All-American football star, a war hero, a world-class ping-pong champion, a multimillionaire business entrepreneur, and, apparently, the greatest long-distance runner that ever lived.

You see, Steve, all you have to do to find incredible success and to achieve the maximum realizations of the American Dream is to do what you’re told: love your mama, stay true to Southern red-state values, volunteer with blind faith to fight in wars for your country, stay monogamously true to one woman your whole life, avoid drugs and alcohol, and be sure not to intellectualize or analyze anything too carefully.

On the other hand, if you, like Jenny, get into the counterculture movement: listen to rock ‘n’ roll, smoke pot, hang around with hippies, listen to smartass college professors, and go to Black Panther parties, then you are going to be so miserable and crazy that you try to jump off of buildings and if that doesn’t kill you, some undisclosed virus will. What’s so conservative about that viewpoint?

Pick: Zemeckis even had to take a swing at Elvis Presley’s penchant for hip-swiveling by taking away any real-life inspiration Elvis had from watching African-American dancers and placing it all on the attempt to mimic a little boy’s difficulty in walking on metal braces. It’s as though Zemeckis was fighting all the culture wars of his adolescence and young adulthood with a misshapen club that could splatter all traces of nuance and creativity. Sure, he might hit some nails on the head, but at the same time, he breaks way more eggs than you need to make an omelet. I think my mama might have said something like that once.

I’ve never soiled my fingers with the book upon which this film is based, so I wonder whether novelist Winston Groom or Zemeckis came up with the framing sequence of Forrest telling the story to fellow travelers waiting at the bus stop. Either way, the payoff of that whole thing drove me crazy from a storytelling point of view. He doesn’t have to wait for the bus after all – Jenny’s address is just a block away. Jenny was the one who frickin’ told him to take the #9 bus in the first place.

Even knowing she was going to die and planning to introduce her son to his wealthy father in the hopes of giving him a better life, Jenny had to take a dig at the one and only person who had accepted her completely no matter how shitty she treated him over the years. (Don’t get me started on the sexual union which resulted in the child. That was tantamount to rape on her part and completely unbelievable from what little we know of her character, especially as one who was molested by somebody with far greater knowledge than she had at the time.)

I want to talk about the whole running thing, both the initial burst of speed which broke his leg braces and the pointless cross-country running which attracted a cult following for no particular reason. What do you think of the underlying metaphors behind “Run, Forrest, Run”?

Leftridge: Oh, hell if I know. You’ve isolated the part of the movie that I like the least. Super-marathoner Jesus crossed my mind with his hirsute and spartan lifestyle and his clan of filthy, fanatical followers. Yet, when he finally turns to say something… he doesn’t. But that’s in line with Forrest’s general blank-brain anti-philosophy, including his simple faith. When a drunken, defeated Lieutenant Dan has wandered so far from the straight and narrow that he rails against the idea of God and heaven (“What a crock of shit”), Forrest calmly proclaims, “I’m going to heaven, Lieutenant Dan.”

If anything, I guess the running sequence emphasises Forrest’s, and the film’s, emphasis on feeling over substance. “When I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go … you know … I went”, he says. Forrest doesn’t think too deeply, but he does his best, lets his actions speak for themselves, maintains a childlike purity in the simple physicality of running, etc. That sequence, by the way, also gives rise to some of the film’s most forced and silly attempts at humour, such as Forrest’s accidental invention of the “Shit Happens” bumper sticker and “Have a Nice Day” t-shirt.

Speaking of Forrest’s inadvertent creations, I’m glad you mentioned the Elvis whitewashing. Zemeckis did the same thing in the first Back to the Future, when Marty McFly went back in time to pre-invent Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll architecture. We’ll have to figure out how Zemeckis cut African American musical inspiration out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit when we get to that Double Take. Did it also bother you that Forrest came up with the lyrical conceit of “Imagine” when appearing with John Lennon on the Dick Cavett Show?

Pick: Man, I’d washed that little bit right out of my brain. It’s probably the most annoying of the “dropping Forrest into real-life footage” bits in the film. Why, why, why? Why can’t Zemeckis believe anybody could accomplish anything, or believe in anything, or think about anything? To me, the running sequence, when all those people followed Forrest thinking he would provide them guidance in life, matched the way Jenny constantly searched for meaning in life through things that, according to Zemeckis, meant nothing. Forrest Gump, the movie, stands firmly in favor of a convention, praising the simple and refusing to look behind the curtain for anything.

Hell, Zemeckis doesn’t even acknowledge that after you’ve had a few boxes of chocolates in your life, you start to remember the shapes and colors, and you can have a much better idea of what you’re going to get.