Why is my first instinct to defend Forrest Gump rather than sing its deserved praise? Released in the year of Pulp Fiction and in the midst of the American culture wars, the movie became a symbol for folks on all sides. What it became less of, with each successive argument, was a movie.
That’s too bad, because it’s a very good movie, the second-best one of 1994 (yes, Pulp Fiction deserved the Oscar). With an enlightened use of special effects, a canny lead performance and an underappreciated structural seamlessness, Forrest Gump is not a wishful paean to a fantasy version of America (as many claimed), but rather a portrait of America – its awfulness and beauty, promise and pain – as seen through the eyes of an innocent. Like the Robert Bresson masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar, with its mythical donkey, Forrest Gump offers an unblinking gaze that’s worth treasuring.
The mythical figure here, of course, is Forrest, played by Tom Hanks in a performance best remembered – and oft-mocked – for its physical attributes. Yet unlike other actorly attempts to portray those with abnormal mental faculties – Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Sean Penn in I Am Sam – Hanks makes Forrest more than a collection of tics and mannerisms. In fact, it’s in the still moments that we best come to know him, those times when Forrest’s quiet stare reveals a growing awareness that life actually is not a box of chocolates. Those who write Forrest Gump off as naive wish-fulfillment are forgetting the sequences that end with Forrest saying, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
Forrest is also a stand-in for the way innocence is co-opted, abused and taken for granted, yet in this case remains uncorrupted to the end. Forrest’s journey – from youthful ridicule to college football success to the trauma of Vietnam and beyond – charts a persevering goodness, a cheerful belief that our better natures, not our baser instincts, will win.
Director Robert Zemeckis traces that journey with an astonishing eloquence, weaving among eras and thematic concerns with delicacy and grace. The effects work is handled similarly, from the floating feather of the bookends to the “erasing” of the legs of Lieut. Dan. Played by Gary Sinise, Lieut. Dan represents the anti-Forrest, a bitter soul so entrenched in his belief that this world is a meaningless pit of despair that he feels cheated when he survives Vietnam. That Forrest Gump argues for the opposite – for belief in goodness and hope – makes it, in the words of Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, “a square.”
Thankfully my movie world has room for pulp and squares.