1 Year, 100 Movies #76 Forrest Gump (1994)

by Trey Hock on September 6, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

Forrest. Forrest Gump. It is time that we talked. I know a lot of people who love this film, and, though it troubles me, I can see why. This film pushes every single emotional and nostalgic button in the arsenal, leaving only the most stalwart and clearheaded to come through unscathed.

Still I hold no special hatred for a film just because it is overly sentimental or cloying. I am not a fan of “Steel Magnolias,” but I bear it – and those who love it – no ill will. But “Forrest Gump” is a different animal, and one that should not only be criticized, but the forces that move to create such a film should be fought and dismantled.

I will get to a more critical analysis of what I believe “Forrest Gump” actually means later. For the moment we shall start with the story.

As you all know Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) is a simpleton from small town Alabama, who manages to participate in almost every single important cultural or social event from the early60s on through the 80s. His achievements include creating Elvis’ signature hip swing, fighting in the Vietnam conflict, inadvertently writing John Lennon’s “Imagine” as well as the slogans “Have a Nice Day” and “Shit Happens,” investing in Apple early on, marrying a woman with HIV, and meeting three U.S. Presidents. There are others, but I’m sure you all know that already.

Though Gump participates in these events, he moves through them with a complete lack of cynicism and without a scar. Gump is pushed from one moment to the next as if fated to be there, but his movement through time is that of a leaf on water. Director Robert Zemeckis uses an equally heavy-handed visual metaphor to open “Forrest Gump.” (Sound starts at 6 seconds)

Oh the feather as it blows from one point to the next, flitting this way and that, but still arriving at its destination on time and intact. Just make sure not to point the camera at all of the muddied and broken feathers that line the boulevards of Savannah, Georgia.

Zemeckis also overuses special effects to place his protagonist into the chosen historical moments. Often this has sad or shameful results. Here are two examples: (Sound starts at 5 seconds)

This moment may inspire a chuckle, but feels awkward when Kennedy’s assassination is mentioned in the next breath. The next moment is Gump’s heroic rescue of Bubba from the jungles of Vietnam:

I’m sorry, but this looks terrible and you don’t outrun napalm. There would have been ways to make this more convincing, but Zemeckis would have been forced to let go of his cherished special effects.

“Forrest Gump” is also a love story between Gump and Jenny (Robin Wright), his wayward girlfriend. These two rarely share the same space together and their relationship is awkward. It is a credit to Hanks and Wright that we feel anything could possibly happen between this hottie and this imbecile. For a more convincing love story between an attractive woman and a mentally handicapped man go see “Pumpkin,” which I think makes a condemning response to “Gump.”

By the time he got to “Forrest Gump,” Zemeckis had lost his edge. The cultural criticism, if there is any present in “Gump,” lacks any bite. This is not the Zemeckis of “Used Cars.” Instead Zemeckis falls into a condemnable pattern that would continue in his later works, that of telling the viewer what the film itself means: (Sound starts at 5 seconds)

Boo Robert Zemeckis, boo. You made “Back to the Future.” You did also make “Back to the Future III,” but “Back to the Future” at least was really good. You can make good movies. Why are you giving us this trite summation of an already completely accessible film?

Not that “Gump” is without poignant moments. Here is a fine example, when Gump remembers his journey for his dying wife:

This moment is very nice, but it is one of the few moments that is allowed to exist without being overworked, and forced.

Okay I promised a little analysis of what I believe “Forrest Gump” actually means, and its high time I get to it.

Many others have speculated as to what “Gump” is. Roger Ebert loved the film and thought it was a modern fable or dream. Quentin Tarantino, as he lost in every category in which “Pulp Fiction” faced “Gump,” speculated that “Gump” was a dark comedy which saw a mentally challenged adult succeed in everything while others around him failed. I think that both thoughts have some merit, but to me this film is generational wish fulfillment and a tragic rewriting of history.

Gump himself is presented as an everyman, as this next scene hammers home:

Mrs. Gump (Sally Field) repeats over and over that Forrest is just like everyone else until it drones in our mind like a hive of bees. But this is not Christian of The Pilgrim’s Progress, a person that is allegorically everybody. No, Gump is a generational everyman. He’s overwhelmingly anchored by his moment in history, and it would be more appropriate to say that Forrest Gump is an every-baby-boomer.

So what does this mean? Well, if we take Forrest Gump and instead replace the generation of baby boomers, we get a narrative that claims all major achievements from the early 60s for a generation that was largely not responsible for them. Boomers were not the ones to land on the moon, or create rock n’ roll. That was the Silent Generation. But “Forrest Gump” says from the mouth of the boomers, “You thought we were crippled, and dumb, but hey, look, we did everything.” Boomers did fight in Vietnam, but I feel that it sets a dangerous historical precedent to so freely bend to whims or wishes of a single generation. I want the X’ers to have done everything, but they didn’t.

Even if you don’t completely believe my analysis, I think that you will appreciate this: As the film takes hold of history for its protagonist, so did “Forrest Gump” sweep the Academy Awards in 1994, in spite of the upcoming new generation of filmmakers, which were represented by Quentin Tarantino and “Pulp Fiction.” So I claim that “Forrest Gump” is a dangerous film that not only wishes to claim for a generation the achievements which preceded that generation, but wants to limit the ability of future generations to make their mark.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But mull it over and I think you may find more than a grain of truth in the analysis.

Next up #75 “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)

1 Year, 100 Movies #77 All the President’s Men (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #78 Modern Times (1936)

1 Year, 100 Movies #79 The Wild Bunch (1969)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eric Melin September 6, 2010 at 10:14 am

This movie has always bugged me. It seems like is something sinister at work here, and I love that you went out on a limb with your own theory!

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2 Trey Hock September 6, 2010 at 10:30 am

Eric,

I’m glad I’m not alone. Even if my theory falls flat for some, this movie is hyper manipulative for weak or false payoffs. I just really don’t trust this movie.

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3 Jimmy Hall September 6, 2010 at 12:43 pm

As for creativity, yes, this movie falls on its face. All they did was put chronological events and placed an innocent man to relive the country’s most groundbreaking decades. Did you even know the actor that played young Forrest was the one that pretty much created his character? (Check DVD extras) Tom Hanks is an amazing actor, the movie has its moments and stupid one-liners which makes the movie worth a couple watches, at least for me.

Now, to defend it… if I have to. This does serve as an entertaining time-piece to help the younger generations understand more about the history of the hippie and disco eras. It takes an innocent (and disabled) man and puts him in the most drastic of experiences and he leaves scar less (as you’ve pointed out). It’s a shame that these were the strong points of the movie when other nominees at the Oscar had so much more running for them; I’m such a Pulp Fiction/ QT fan.

Over-rated? Yes. A goodish time-piece that entertains and teaches? Yes.

Someone just cut some slack for QT once in a while.

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4 ChemGuy September 6, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I remember watching this in the theater and being amazed by the special effects – the integration of Gump into the historical scenes was impressive at the time – but also recognizing at times “oh, this is where the director wants me to cry” without feeling the actual emotion needed for that kind of a payoff.

It’s manipulative and disgustingly saccharine sweet, but the special effects were impressive – if overused – for the time.

I haven’t seen it in a few years, and I’m guessing, though, that it hasn’t aged well and that the special effects look poor now leaving it with absolutely nothing to recommend it.

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5 Xavier September 6, 2010 at 2:52 pm

I think the movie could have had a lot to say about the different historical moments by having a neutral main character, forcing us to make up our own minds about the significance and meaning of each. Sadly though, no such conversation or thought is invited by the filmmaker and it just comes across as a montage reel of events without context or impact.
The scene at the grave, apart from that part where he describes the meaning of the film is actually really moving, if manipulative and some powerful work from Hanks.

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6 Trey Hock September 6, 2010 at 6:59 pm

ChemGuy,

I hear you as far as the predictableness of this film. Now is the time to laugh. Now’s when we cry. Here we sigh contentedly. This is what I mean when I say “Gump” is a manipulative film.

Jimmy and Xavier,

I agree Tom Hanks is good as Gump. But Jimmy I must take issue with one of your statements.

“Over-rated? Yes. A goodish time-piece that entertains and teaches? Yes.”

Teaches? This is exactly why this film is so dangerous. There is little/nothing in this film that is in any way accurate, and yet lots of people take it as if it is just Zemeckis dropping this dumb endearing guy into the actual events. This entire movie is a falsehood and teaches us nothing. The fact that it is entertaining and has many memorable lines and moments makes it all the more deadly. It makes you want to believe it. Tread carefully my friend. I feel as though you may have one foot on the Gump Mine, which when detonated will send shards of metal through your knowledge of American history, and could result in your purchasing of a Bubba Gump hat. As a fellow QT fan, I would hate to see that.

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7 Eric Melin September 6, 2010 at 7:49 pm

“Teaches” is a serious word, but let’s be honest. I devour James Ellroy’s historical fiction and love the way he plugs fictional characters into actual historical events, illuminating them from the inside out. In fact, I even go so far as to assume (and I’ve read that) he does a shit-ton of research before drawing these scenarios out.

OK, now that’s I’ve written that I realize I was trying to draw some sort of corollary between Gump and Ellroy, and that’s just not right. What I will say, however, is that I agree there are certain people who will see this movie and it will color or draw conclusions for them in history that are wholly inaccurate. But what’s really happening is the film is reducing huge cultural events to side gags.

OK, I just read what I wrote. Rambling at best. Sorry.

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8 sb September 6, 2010 at 9:56 pm

It is also particularly insidious because the excuse for Gump NOT having indignation throughout the film or a sense of irony that would have him spit in Johnson’s face as he gets a medal (or whatever) is that, in the classic sense of “dramatic irony,” Gump is Judy Davis’s “idiot-man-child.” He is mentally retarded (literally), and is to be forgiven for being simple. The only time he snaps is like a child with a crush when he sees Jenny abused, and he doesn’t act with anything resembling thoughtfulness. He is like what my 8-year-old sees when he sees “Of Mice and Men.”
The reason I think that this is purposeful is because the few times that it is set up for Gump to HAVE to have something to say, or when he looks like he is on the spot to take a side (by choice — not by providence), something falls apart. The best example is when he is dragged to the microphone at the Washington Mall, and then, when goaded into talking, he speaks with what appears to be emotion, but … AHA! The microphone cuts out.
The movie carefully straddles fences about things that aren’t even fucking controversial. This isn’t as bad as “Crash” or “Precious,” but it is just as insidious as both. Thanks for pointing it out.

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9 Trey Hock September 6, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Some really great discussion here.

Eric, you’re not rambling. Your points are well taken. “Gump” is reductive to the absurd.

SB, nice call with the example of the microphone cutting out. You’re spot on.

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10 chris September 7, 2010 at 9:02 am

Second worst movie EVER (behind only Swing Kids) especailly in terms of revisionist history.

Here’s a good movie to comair it to – Oliver Stone’s JKF. Same fast and loose interpetation of “facts” passed off as gospel without any acknoledgement of any other viewpoint except the filmakers. Same condesending attitude to the audience (we’re gonna spoon-feed you this and make sure you understand just what we’re saying) But wildly different reactions. Go figure

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11 Streams of Whiskey September 9, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Trey, I’ve been absent from the comments for some time. I apologize. I’m back.

I don’t have much to add to the fine discussion here, although it still chafes me– 16 years later– that “Gump” beat out both “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption” for Best Picture. I realize that I have something of a soft spot for Shawshank and that in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably not on the level of a typical Best Picture. But then again, neither is Gump.

I will say this for Zemeckis, though. With the opening title sequence of the feather drifting lazily over Savannah, he proves once again that he is a master of the “aerial shots of quaint town squares” motif (see also: the Hill Valley of 1955 in “Back to the Future”; the small Colombian village in “Romancing the Stone”). Interestingly, all three of these aerial shots were musically scored by Alan Silvestri. Perhaps there is something to that…. or most likely, not.

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12 Streams of Whiskey September 9, 2010 at 1:42 pm

PS: I should mention that the bulk of the aerial shot of Hill Valley in 1955 is accompanied by “Mr. Sandman,” but I believe Silvestri’s score does eventually kick in to highlight Marty’s utter bewilderment. I think.

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13 Right back atcha September 9, 2010 at 8:46 pm

And what about the other glaring point: this movie is a ripoff of Zelig which is a much better movie, which is a ripoff of Little Big Man which is a much better book. The movie Little Big Man is a whole other issue. It’s just all about characters who were every place important for their particular moment. The lameness of Gump is that it posits he was everywhere for a longer period over larger distances. If one also traces him back to the D.W. Griffith homage (surprised you neglected that) it suggests that the Gump family have always been movers and shakers in American history. There may be a prequel where the Gump people fight in the French and Indian War only after telling Columbus the world is round. In fact, I hope that they keep making these Gump movies ever after except that they already did for kids: Forrest Gump is the post WWII adult version of Wishbone the dog except it lacks a cute beagle.

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14 Manuel Royal September 11, 2010 at 8:57 am

As a Boomer myself, I’m glad to find I’m not the only one who found “Forrest Gump” condescending and, frankly, insulting. One of the annoying characteristics of my generation is that we tend to think we’re smarter and hipper than anybody who came before — then we accept spoon-fed crap that presents the historical events we lived through as if they were sections of a theme park.

But I have to admit the movie is better than the novel by Winston Groom. Well, they’re both bad, but in entirely different ways.

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15 Trey Hock September 11, 2010 at 9:49 am

Hilarious and nicely crafted observations, RBA. Maybe “Forrest Gump” is a children’s film, which aims to distort their historical reality. Good call on “Zelig” which is a much better movie.

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16 Trey Hock September 20, 2010 at 4:10 am

Manuel, I want to copy and paste your first paragraph everywhere. Obviously there are good and bad boomers, just like there are good and bad of any group. Still thanks for being one of the good ones.

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17 Amanda Beggs November 12, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Trey – I just want to say thank you, thank you, thank you. For years, I have had to fight off angry hoards (ok, slight overreaction) when I would casually mention that I disliked Forrest Gump. And I’m one of the biggest Tom Hanks fans of all time! But I just do not like this film. And now, finally, you have articulated what I have always tried to say, and now when people ask me why I don’t like this film, I simply send them a link to your blog and say “that’s how I feel”.

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