A film review by Craig J. Koban




10th Anniversary Retrospective Review  

1994, PG-13, 135 mins.

Forrest Gump: Tom Hanks / Jenny Curran: Robin Wright / Lt. Dan: Gary Sinise

Directed by Robert Zemeckis /  Written by Eric Roth

I think that with a great degree of clarity and foresight that I have never really seen a film quite like 1994's Best Picture Winner FORREST GUMP.  Trying to narrow the film down into some sort of simple and definitive categories seems as redundant as it is needless.  It’s a drama, comedy, war film, and historical film.  Funny, but if anyone told me that a film about a mentally challenged man with an IQ below 65 would go on to become one of the highest grossing films of all-time, win six Oscars and be nominated for thirteen, I would have laughed in their face. 

FORREST GUMP, both ten years ago and now, remains one of the more unconventional films ever made, a glorious and magical two and a half hour odyssey into the history of America over 30 years as seen through the innocent (and usually innocuous) eyes of a mild mannered man who never seems to sweat the small stuff.  Its really an amazing journey, and kind of refreshing that the main character is not so much a rugged leading man as a painfully ordinary man placed in extraordinary situations.  Gump has been to and seen just about everything; he’s met Presidents, fought in Vietnam, becomes the CEO of his own company, ran a Terry Fox-esque marathon across the US, and even played ping-pong in Communist China.  Yet, Gump seems oblivious to the things he’s accomplished and the events he’s partaken in.  In a sweet moment at the beginning of the film Gump describes his sneakers as “magic shoes” that “would take him anywhere.” 

He was not kiddin’!

FORREST GUMP had an interesting history coming to the silver screen and several stars were once attached to headline the film as its title character (Bill Murray was pegged at one point).  Directors names bounced around for years (everyone from Barry Sonnenfeld to Terry Gillium were considered).  It what proved to be a disastrous move,  Warner Brother’s decided to give up the rights to the film in 1988 to Paramount in exchange for, get a loud of this, the rights to EXECUTIVE DECISION?  The studio felt that,  with GUMP containing a character that was obviously mentally handicapped,  they had no desire to make another RAIN MAN and thus thought that the project had lost its commercial promise.  They sure were wrong in their assumptions, as GUMP made more than six EXECUTIVE DECISIONS combined.  The film finally fell into place in the more than capable hands of director Robert Zemeckis (who’s no stranger to poignant history films, he did the BACK TO THE FUTURE pictures) and Tom Hanks, who was a very hot commodity after his 1993 Oscar win for his performance in Jonathon Demme’s PHILADELPHIA. 

The rest, as they say, is history.  One year later the film nearly swept the Oscars and netted Hanks his second straight Best Actor award (the first person to do that since Spencer Tracy), beat out great films like PULP FICTION and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION for Best Picture, and grossed, amazingly, over $300 million dollars, an unheard of sum unless the name Lucas or Spielberg is attached to it.  Just about everyone saw GUMP and he slowly became a pop culture phenomenon (our media and cultural lexicon was inundated with GUMPisms, small bits of wisdom spoken simply  by Gump in the film).

So, why was this film so special, magical and timeless? 

FORRST GUMP is a bittersweet slice of life story of a simple and humble Alabama man and chronicles his life from the late 1950’s all the way through the 1980’s.  Forrest is born to a local boarding house owner played by Sally Field (who in real life is only ten years Hanks senior, but never mind, the suspension of disbelief is there).  Forrest is not the most gifted of young children.  He was born with a back as “crocked as a politician” and has an IQ below 65, essentially and legally defining him as a mental invalid.  Forrest’s mother, however, never sees a problem with Forrest’s mental ineptitude, and always supports him lovingly (a lot of support, as an early  funny scene with a school principle demonstrates).  Young Forrest is even forced to wear large and ghastly metal braces to correct his posture.  But despite his physical and mental handicaps, young Forrest’s positive  nature  is a real revelation (“momma says these braces will fix me up fine and dandy” he tells a friend early in the film).  That’s really the key to the film and its appeal: the main character, when faced with the seriously bad deck that was dealt to him, never, ever looses his eternal optimism.  Young Gump and the equally dim-witted man he grows into never seems to see things in bad light.  Even when he does a tour in Vietnam, he says gleefully, “we got to see a lot of the countryside.”

Young Gump sure does grow up into a real figure of a man, all right.  One day when he’s chased by school bullies, his young female friend Jenny (later played as an adult by Oscar nominee Robin Wright Penn) tells him to run, and run he does, with strides so strong that his braces fly off his legs as the uplifting music swings in with a powerful crescendo.  He easily escapes the school bullies and the film quickly flash-forwards to his teen years where, you guessed it, Gump is chased by the same bullies.  But since Gump is an abnormally fast runner (“momma said I could run like the wind blows”) he accidentally runs into a football practice and clearly demonstrates his dominance over the other players in the running game.  This moment is the pinnacle of the film.  “Guess what,” Gump utters his voice-over narration, “I got to go to College too!”  Yup, Gump is so lucky that he gets a football scholarship and plays in giant games where the crowd screams his name.  This is where the film becomes magical, as Gump’s enormous fortune (and obsessive string of good luck) becomes one of the film’s most inspiring and hilarious running gags, made even more funny considering that Gump never seems to see what the big deal is.  When his college team meets President Kennedy, he seems more impressed that they give him as many bottles of Dr. Pepper that he wants.  “The best part of meeting the President,” Gump says proudly, “is the FOOD!”

Thus begins the “life story” of Mr. Gump, and what a glorious, exciting, uplifting, and inspirational life it is.  This simple man from Greenbow, Alabama goes from backyard simpleton to a nearly mythic, pop culture phenomenon and icon.  In College he meets George Wallace as he tries to desegregate the University (in cinema’s only truly funny and innocent scene involving both the word “nigger” being uttered and segregation as a topic).  From there Forrest gets a degree (miraculously, it seems) and is then recruited into the army.  Gump becomes a natural soldier and an expert at putting rifles together in record time (when his drill sergeant asks him why he puts his rifle together so inhumanly fast, Gump shrugs his shoulders and deadpans, “because you told me too.”)  Of course, since Gump is considered a great soldier and this is the period of the mid 60’s where the Vietnam conflict was starting to hit its peak,  Forrest and his newfound friend Bubba (the very funny Mykelti Williamson) go off to Vietnam for a tour of duty.   Things don’t go altogether well for him, but he does parachute out of the war as a hero (he miraculously saves a bunch of men from certain death, including his lieutenant, Dan Taylor – Gary Sinise – and he's subsequently awarded the medal of honour!)

The mega-success story of Gump does not end in the War.  It seems that when Gump spent time in a military hospital for his war wound (“directly in the buttocks”), he becomes a phenomenal ping-pong player, SO GOOD that he manages to go to Communist China to play the world ping-pong champion.  He does this, while signing a lucrative advertising contract that makes him thousands.  Oh, his ping pong prowess is so strong that he even manages to get onto the Dick Cavet show and meet John Lennon (in the film’s most funny scene, Cavet asks Gump what China was like, Gump responds “they are not allowed to own anything” where Lennon further asks, to our ironic amusement,  “no possessions and no religion too?”

Gump's enormously grateful roller coater ride to success does not end there.  He later meets up with Lieutenant Dan and starts a shrimping boat business, which he later becomes CEO of.  Next thing you know, he’s a millionaire and invests his money into what seems, in hindsight, ingloriously lucky monetary gambles (“I invested in this new fruit company” which is revealed to be APPLE Computers).  Even if wealth has made him a man with little to worry about, a small emotional crisis later emerges where Gump decides,  for some odd reason, to just start running (“for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run”) Little is an understatement, as Gump runs from one end of the US to the other and attracts a loyal running cult around him.  His persona reaches such God-like levels that, at one point in the run he stops (his long hair and beard making him look not-to unlike Christ) and his “followers” whisper, “Ssssh, he’s gonna say something!”

On paper, this FORREST GUMP sound s like one of the most moronic and implausible films ever made.  Yet, it is for those very reasons where its charm lies.  Gump’s life is a ridiculous journey through the backyards of American history, and he travels through it all not with the amazement of a child, but with a classy modesty, niceness, and humbleness.  The one thing that Gump, as a character, is so consistently capable of is his inescapable honesty, humanity, and humility.  Gump is never a man that brags about his accomplishments and riches.  Sure, he acknowledges them, but he does so with an “aw, shucks” innocence.  Gump is a truly inspirational figure because of his soul ability to get out of the painful grip of cynicism.  He just can’t see the negative in ANY situation, and his politeness and manners never cease to shine through.  Evidence of this is clearly apparent, especially in one funny moment where, after he makes a commotion at a gathering  of a certain group of Black militants, quietly whispers to them, “sorry I ruined you Black Panther party.”  Even when he steps in dog feces and does so much as bend an eyelash at it, a spectator looks at him in amazement, and Gump responds, “Well, it happens!” 

The danger of the rich screenplay by Eric Roth is to make this a film that wants us to sympathize with a mentally retarded man.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Gump is not a man to look down on with sympathy as he is a figure to look up to with awe.  He also is a metaphorical figure by which we, the viewer, can live vicariously through to witness the various integral events of US history.  The film has a man with disabilities in it, but it’s through him that the film develops into this epic meditation and exploration of our times.  It’s a film of huge laughs and strange, quite sorrows.  We laugh as Gump gets shot in the ass in Vietnam, but when we return to the Military hospital with him and see the negative consequences of the war, a subtle and pertinent undercurrent of meaning slips though.  In that way, GUMP achieves the minor miracle of being simultaneously hilarious and uplifting and sad and disheartening at the same time.  But, despite some of the film’s darker moments, Gump remains a sharp and astute person of confidence.  He may be stupid, but he never gives up on life.  Like “a box of chocolates," you never know what yer gonna get!.

The film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, is an expert in these larger than life stories.  He won an Oscar for his work here and it’s a mighty accomplishment indeed.  He not only flawlessly directs the actors for the right level of emotional resonance, but he uses the then-latest techniques in computer technology to tell his fable.  Zemeckis has always been revered as a technical director (his WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT was a watershed film that ingeniously incorporating live action with cartoon animation).  In a way, ROGER RABBIT enabled Zemeckis to be a man that was born to direct Gump.  The film seamlessly incorporates Gump into various archival and historical footage to make us actually believe that this Alabama kid did in fact meet President Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.  By intricately  using these various clips and re-dubbing them ever so carefully, Zemeckis is able to achieve such a level of rich verisimilitude for FORREST GUMP.  It’s such a deceptively simple idea in conception, but no doubt difficult in practical implication, and the special effects wizards at George Lucas’ ILM deserved their Oscar win.

The film, despite its great visual illusions, would be nothing without the actors and their performances, which all are able to bring this mythic fable to the ground.  Tom Hanks won his second Oscar for playing Gump and his performance is a masterful exercise in well-timed and mannered comic and dramatic acting.  He tiptoes so effortless between laughs and tears that he instills such a high level of audience empathy with the character.  Hanks’ real achievement here is that he created a character free of ego or narcissism.  He’s a real treasure here.  The other stand-out is Robin Wright Penn as Forrest’s troubled love interest in the film, and she plays a well-conceived common-sense foil to Gump’s larger than life optimism.  Gary Sinise gave the second best performance in the film as Lieutenant Dan as a man of wounded pride, passion, and pain.  He  has so much deeply pent up emotion and is so powerfully introverted that, in one crucial scene, he tells Gump, “I never thanked you for saving my life.”  He never does say thanks after that; he just can’t bring himself to.  Gump, being a selfless chap, never needs to hear it.

FORREST GUMP is a magical fantasy of a film, a wonderful allegory of our troubled times as seen through the eyes of a man who refuses to bear burdens on his shoulders when raising his head high just feels better.  It’s a remarkable achievement, combining the classic elements of a biopic, real historical ties to America’s past, and wonderful performances.  As the film progresses, especially to its conclusion, you really gain an insight to just what an incredible man Gump truly is, as he has basically, whether he wanted to or not, toured the most prominent events of our recent cultural past.  It’s amazing that he manages to get though them all with that unwavering level of happiness and enthusiasm that always permeates his character.  The film may be preposterous, by its message is timeless and meaningful.  Like a feather floating freely though the air, Gump too glides through his life effortless and unaffected by the raging negativity that he faces.   It’s really a modern fable, a dreamlike fairy tale on how to live one’s life to his fullest.  For such a simple man, Gump’s legacy speaks volumes.

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