The 1990s yielded several choices for this week’s Historical Circuit, and it’s expected considering I was able to watch and enjoy movies more as the decade wore on. (I won’t disclose at what age I watched certain movies because I’ve been told some were inappropriate for my young age.) With that, I look forward to analyzing the nineties in subsequent columns, but what to start with today? Let me begin by saying I love this movie, and consider it one of my favorite films of all time. But as film critics know, you can love something and still be able to acknowledge it’s flaws; that’s what I’ll be doing today. With that, let’s talk about the 1994 drama, Forrest Gump. Forrest Gump is a damn fine movie, but I understand the arguments from those who hate it. Its become so ingrained in pop culture to become a series of catch phrases, and its narrative device, views of the time periods, and yes, treatment of women, is suspect. As you read this, please remember that I do love this movie…but it isn’t perfection and that’s okay!
Forrest Gump tells the tale of a man (Tom Hanks) recounting his life growing up in the 1950s and leading all the way up to present day; or 1994 at least. Along the way he tells of his enduring love for the troubled Jenny (Robin Wright), and his mother (Sally Field).
The best place to start is what Forrest Gump has transformed into. When it came out in 1994 it grossed over $330,000,000 and won several Academy Awards including Best Actor (Tom Hanks), Best Director (Robert Zemeckis), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. Since then, the movie’s script and one-liners endure; “Life is like a box of chocolates,” and “Run, Forrest, run” have entered the popular lexicon so you don’t have the see the movie to know where they come from. This sheer pervasiveness has become eye-roll inducing, in a similar way to Titanic’s “King of the world”; I’m saving Titanic for another day but it was considered, in case you were wondering. There is also a dated quality to the movie stemming from our enhanced knowledge Vietnam and Watergate, coupled with the political scandals and our war within the last fifteen years. Forrest Gump stands as a time capsule of an idealized 1960s and 1970s for people to enjoy in the 1990s.
The problems with the time period are conjoined with the characters, oddly enough. Forrest Gump is the man continually in the right place at the right time – a narrative device that audiences aren’t buying today – but what shapes him during the volatile periods are all positive and romanticized. Take, for instance, his induction into the army. Full Metal Jacket this is not and from there we see the horrors of Vietnam. The movie removes all context for events, which makes sense given Forrest’s simple mind and lowered IQ as well as containing the runtime. However, there isn’t much horror on display outside of seeing a few bloodied men that Forrest ends up saving. There is one big battle sequence and Vietnam is over. There’s no long-term ramifications or set-up because it’s a blip on Forrest’s radar and a beat that the script has to hit (the whole script, while endearing, is a series of pop culture beats). Forrest comes out of Vietnam perfectly fine and never suffers from the long-term mental distress or hatred for Vietnam veterans that would be heard about in films like Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. Nope, Forrest is a hero and he stays a hero for the entire movie.
The Vietnam section brings up another issue with Forrest Gump: its whitewashing of history. A joke opening up the movie is that Forrest is descended from the founder of the Ku Klux Klan; the sepia-toned character is also played by Tom Hanks in case you ever wanted to see him dressed up as a Klansman. It’s a humorous moment that lingers in the movie’s consciousness when you look at the few African-Americans that are depicted. The 1960s-1970s were extremely volatile and hostile times with regards to Civil Rights, and it never enters the movie (or Forrest’s mind). It would be acceptable if the few times African-Americans were depicted, they weren’t so incredibly stereotyped. Forrest’s Vietnam buddy, Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) is as simple-minded as Forrest, and ends up dying during the war; it’s a realistic moment if you believe someone like Forrest wouldn’t survive Vietnam, but Bubba is the only African-American we see for more than a few minutes, and the only one Forrest interacts with in any mode of friendship. Later on, Forrest goes out with Jenny to a meeting house for the Black Panthers. The Panthers come off as abrasive militants who spout their agenda, but Forrest (and the movie) has little interest in that because Jenny is being assaulted. The Black Panthers become a punch-line like the KKK: “Sorry I started a fight in the middle of your Black Panther party.” And let us not forget the African-American nurse who opens the film, sitting on a park bench as Forrest details his story; she’s dismissive, and vaguely rude, only to disappear to allow other listeners to stop by who are all white. No mention of Civil Rights enters into this movie at all, and while I wouldn’t want Forrest Gump to turn into a “white guilt” movie, to pretend it didn’t exist is absurd.
What about Women’s Liberation? Nope, also excised from the movie. In fact, Forrest Gump is one of my favorite films, but it makes my blood boil with its bare-faced adoration and acceptance of the Madonna/whore paradigm. The Madonna in this case is Forrest’s adoring mother. Sure, she sleeps with the school principle in order to secure Forrest’s entry into school, but she’s never meant to get any enjoyment out of the sexual encounter. She is a vessel to be used to secure Forrest’s entry into the world of normality. After that, Forrest’s mother becomes completely asexual, never desiring a husband or any type of companionship because Forrest is all she needs. Conversely, you have the “whore” represented by the damaged Jenny. Jenny is the archetype of the damaged woman; starting from childhood, she is broken by the repeated molestation of her father (another “joke” comes from Forrest’s misinterpretation of Jenny’s father, calling him a “very loving man”). From there, Jenny becomes the dartboard by which every bad thing that came to represent the decades depicted happens to. She becomes swathed in nightclubbing, hitchhiking, drug use, suicide, and finally gets a “mysterious virus” that we’ve come to know as HIV. Forrest can’t become embroiled or experience any of the harsh realities of the decade – remember, his view of the world is romantic – and therefore it’s easier to damage a woman.
I know many people who despise the character of Jenny and that’s purely because the character is so archetypal. This remains my favorite performance of Robin Wright’s (second to Princess Buttercup), and she brings in pathos and emotion to the role so that you at least feel pity for the character. The problem is that Jenny never stands a chance because she’s doomed to die. She’s the tragic heroine that Forrest must save, and her continued abandonment of him causes the audience to hate her for spurning his advances. Forrest articulates that he “knows what love is” in a way that Jenny will never know because she is damaged. However, does he really know what love is? Remember, he didn’t understand molestation and confused that with love, so is he really the one with the authority on romance? By the end, Jenny’s sole purpose is to die, closing the loop so that Forrest and Forrest Jr. (a tiny Haley Joel Osment) can start their journey together. Jenny is a similar vessel as Mrs. Gump: only instead of dispensing love, she takes in all the damage, pain, and sorrow that the script knows Forrest can’t handle without being seen as a victim. It’s easier to victimize a woman than a mentally handicapped man.
That brings me around to the topic of disability. Forrest Gump actually does disability decently, just not within Forrest’s character. Forrest is born with spinal issues – his back’s “as crooked as a question mark” – and has to use leg braces throughout childhood. He overcomes brief adversity, but magically eschews his braces during a sequence where he outruns bullies (the infamous “Run, Forrest, run” scene). From there, there’s never a mention of disability, and Forrest magically cures himself just as he magically enters into events at the right time. The character I always identified with as a disabled person myself was Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise). Lieutenant Dan is probably one of my favorite film characters because he exhibit’s the bitterness and cynical attitude that everyone suffering from a disability experiences at one time or another. Just as Dan’s glory to die in battle was taken from him, so were his legs. Similar to Jenny, Lieutenant Dan goes through the real-life pain and lifelong torment of war; forced to live life with a disability that can’t magically solve itself, even though he gets titanium prosthetics which Forrest calls “magic legs.” The best scene has to be Lieutenant Dan’s moment of weakness when he condemns God and the idea that if he’s a good man he can “walk beside him [God] in the Kingdom of Heaven.” It’s a genuine, real moment of conflict in a movie where conflict is so easily resolved.
Overall, Forrest Gump has flaws and they stem from the character of Forrest himself. He’s the catalyst by which all the side characters are given any type of depth and complexity; I’d go so far as to say Forrest Gump is a very surface character in himself. I realize the movie has big issues, but despite all that I still find the movie to be a beautiful, sweet ride through history that certainly inspired my love of the time period. If anything, Forrest Gump turned me into a history buff with a yearning to learn the truth about our country. The characters are as colorful as they can be, but the true breath of life is within the history that Forrest witnesses (as romanticized and whitewashed as it is). The movie is engaging, and entertaining; to me, it’s a Hollywood classic, but I’m just as ready to acknowledge that it isn’t perfection.