The commercials for Forrest Gump make it look like the sort of movie described as “wonderful” and “heartwarming”; fortunately, it’s better than that. I had read the book, by Winston Groom, and hoped the movie wouldn’t lose the engaging voice of the novel — the voice of Forrest Gump (IQ 75), a simple-minded, good-hearted Southern boy whose life is a series of whimsical, mildly satirical episodes. As it happens, Tom Hanks, as Gump, narrates the movie from a bus-stop bench and delivers many of Groom’s best lines. The script isn’t as funny as the novel — the film’s Gump isn’t as much of a screw-up as the book’s Gump — but it’s funny enough, and sometimes it hits daring notes. When Gump tells us that his childhood sweetheart Jenny is lucky to have a father who kisses and touches her and her sisters all the time, the line is funny because it’s exactly what the blinkered, innocent Gump would assume. But it’s also not funny. It’s these examples of Gump’s trusting nature being utterly inaccurate that save Forrest Gump from being mush.
The movie, directed by Robert Zemeckis, isn’t meant to be taken literally; like many enchanting films, it falls apart under close scrutiny. Most people, though, won’t have the heart to scrutinize it, and, aside from a few minor complaints, I see no need to, either. Its flaws don’t do it any great harm; it’s as comforting as an afternoon nap, but also as refreshing, and it’s going to be a big hit. Forrest Gump creates its own floating reality, and the problem many critics have with this is that it deals, in large part, with actual historical events (much of the film addresses Vietnam and the peace movement). The movie is meant to be American history as seen through the eyes of a man who understands very little of what he sees. And he speaks for people who can’t make any more sense of the last three decades than he can.
In other words, Forrest Gump — America considered through a folksy, satirical lens — will annoy those who prefer their satire with a harder edge (i.e., satire that punctures the “correct” targets). The movie has drawn fire for being reactionary, and it may well become a favorite of conservatives, but I think that has more to do with what didn’t survive the transition from book to movie (Groom’s satire was more even-handed) because of time limitations. For example, the radical hippies of the peace movement are presented as slimy, predatory womanizers who slap their girlfriends around (one guy even does this and then blames it on “that goddamn Johnson”). But talk to some women who remember those days and they’ll tell you this isn’t far from the truth: The “sexual revolution” turned out to be a new, hip variation on the time-honored male ploy to get women to spread their legs, and we’re still paying for it. The critics who want to be intellectually one up on the large, stupid wad of Americans who embrace this film are attacking the wrong movie for the wrong reasons. Forrest Gump, a proudly square fantasia, has much more to offer than a likable but coldly hip critics’ darling like Four Weddings and a Funeral, and certainly more than the summer of 1994′s crop of movies that don’t ask you to feel anything — The Shadow, Wyatt Earp, The Crow, The Flintstones, and on and on.
Almost 25 years ago, Pauline Kael wrote that the then-popular movie Joe (another counter-counterculture hit, all but forgotten today) could easily be turned into a Saturday-morning cartoon, and the episodic, virtually plotless Forrest Gump would also be ideal (“Gump Plays Football,” “Gump Goes to Vietnam,” “Gump Starts a Shrimping Business”). At two hours and twenty-two minutes, the movie is an epic ramble, with characters disappearing and reappearing as the story requires. Gump is a safe guide through the tumult of the ’60s, the absurdity of the ’70s, and the greed of the ’80s. Jenny (played in adulthood by Robin Wright), on the other hand, seems to experience everything terrible about those decades: drugs, soulless sex, more abuse, more drugs, and one final pitfall that isn’t in the book. Letting her pristine features collapse into numbness, Wright fleshes out Jenny’s self-disgust. This masochistic woman isn’t ready for Gump, who, in his infinite kindness, wants only to love her. She embodies American disillusionment, and she will probably make a lot of feminists foam at the mouth. I can’t say I disagree; the book’s Jenny certainly wasn’t this self-hating (she was, in fact, more of a free spirit like Gump). Gump flies through the decades with nary a scratch, but a vague, doomy cloud hangs over poor Jenny, who always makes the worst choices. You may fairly ask what this woman is being punished for.
The movie, however, continues to see through Gump’s eyes, and since he never judges or condemns Jenny, we clearly aren’t meant to. Even the aforementioned feminists may forgive much when they see how tenderly Gump looks at Jenny (the camera agrees with him). Here, Tom Hanks cements his status as the movies’ great modern romantic lead. Handsome (though not in a plastic cover-boy way — especially not with the dorky Gump buzz-cut he’s been given), non-threatening, emotionally direct, Hanks is the obvious successor to James Stewart, who in his early thirties would have done well by Gump. Hanks’ Gump is as solemnly attentive as an owl, absorbing information he can’t add up. But he’s also confident enough in himself to be good-natured despite his low intelligence; he remembers nothing so much as what his dear, tough mama (Sally Field in a tart, restrained performance) told him: You’re no different than anyone else. One of the movie’s ironies is that only an idiot like Gump could have such terrific self-esteem.
Zemeckis makes Tom Hanks lovable, but Hanks resists being shameless — he has too much good humor for that. His beautifully modulated work as a grieving man in Sleepless in Seattle seemed too hefty for that piffly romantic comedy, yet he had a superb moment parodying women’s weepy connection to An Affair to Remember — he and a buddy sobbed while recalling choice scenes in The Dirty Dozen. And in Philadelphia he proved he wouldn’t disgrace himself by shilling for easy tears. Hanks doesn’t make Forrest Gump a cutie-pie. He intensifies his greatest resource as an actor — that we can read him better than any star since James Stewart — so that Gump’s feelings come across with startling clarity. When Hanks has his big moment near the end — Gump talking to Jenny and fighting to keep his composure — the audience is his to lose, and he doesn’t. He also has the generosity to step aside and let his co-stars take over: Mykelti Williamson as Bubba, who worships shrimp; Gary Sinise as Lieutenant Dan, who is disabled in Vietnam and blames Gump for saving his life, because he’d wanted to die heroically in combat. These fine actors ground the movie in bitter reality.
A review of Forrest Gump wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the astounding computer-generated visual effects, which enable Gump to interact (in actual newsreel footage) with JFK, Nixon, John Lennon, and many others, and also give us small pleasures that don’t announce themselves as artificial: a ping-pong ball, the feather during the opening credits, the peace rally of thousands of people — all computerized images, of course. This shouldn’t be surprising coming from Robert Zemeckis, the toy-shop magician who seems to set himself a new technical challenge with each movie (his previous film was Death Becomes Her). What is surprising is that Zemeckis should have such assured control of such potentially sugary material. Embracing sentiment while avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality is a special effect in itself.