I could not spend a whole year talking about 1994 and calling it “the most important year of the Nineties” if I didn’t take the time to talk about the film from 1994 that would go on to win best picture: Forrest Gump. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it is the story of a simple-minded man (the un-PC term would be “mentally retarded”) who winds up living an extraordinary life. Told through mostly flashbacks, the story concerns Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), who is sitting on a bus stop bench in 1982 on his way to see Jenny, who as we learn over the course of the movie, is the love of his life. He tells his life story to anyone who happens to be sitting next to him (as well as the audience): born in Alabama, Forrest has a low I.Q. and had to wear braces on his legs as a kid until one day he learned how to run. This served him well more than once, as he played for the University of Alabama football team, served in Vietnam, played diplomatic ping pong, opened a shrimping company, and started a running craze. Along the way, we also see the life of his girl, Jenny (Robin Wright), who had a life that directly contrasts Hanks’s characcter: she was abused as a child, became a hippie, and spent much of her formative years in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze until finally coming home to Alabama and living with Forrest before leaving (which prompts Forrest to start running and the creation of his running craze). When Forrest and Jenny meet up after he’s done telling his story, she tells him that she is dying and that she has a son named Forrest, who is the result of the one night that the two of them slept together. By the end of the film Jenny has passed away and Forrest is now raising his son in his childhood home in Alabama.
That’s a gross simplification of the movie’s plot (after all, I didn’t mention Bubba or Lt. Dan), but most of the people reading this post are probably at least familiar enough with the film to follow along (and if you’re not, the film is available for streaming via Netflix). Or you can check out the trailer:
So, with the plot out of the way, I thought I’d get to what I wanted to say about this movie, which has not been one of my favorites; in fact, I’ve long contended that with both The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction nominated for best picture that year, I can’t understand how this won best picture. Okay, I can see why it was a popular choice for best picture, what with its sentimentality and emotional impact; I can’t understand how the Academy thought that this was more worthy of that particular honor than those two films, the latter of which had a major influence on filmmaking for at least the better part of the rest of the decade (and possibly beyond).
You know, never mind that I saw this three times in the theater, bought the soundtrack, and own a copy on VHS (although for the life of me I have no idea where that copy is). In fact, I liked the movie when it came out. It was beautifully shot, was pretty funny, and the music was great. But it did not age well, especially after I saw Pulp Fiction and read Winston Groom’s novel upon which the film is based. The novel turned me against the film in a big way, as Groom’s Forrest is a lot less likable than the buffoon with a heart of gold that Hanks plays on screen (and for which he won Best Actor). Prior to writing this post, I hadn’t watched the film since 1996 and decided to give it a fair shake. I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would, although I still think it wasn’t worth the Best Picture honor (and I still maintain that it’s right up there with the oft-derided Ordinary People’s victory as Oscar larceny). So what I did was do what any
lazy good blogger does, and that’s made a list. So here are the top five things I liked and the top five things I hated about Forrest Gump.
The Top Five Things I Liked
5. Its ironic look at nostalgia. Nostalgia, as much as I love it as as much as I trade in it, tends to lack nuance. We remember what we loved about a time in our lives or a time in history without looking at the whole picture. Watching Forrest Gump, if you juxtapose the experiences of Forrest and Jenny during the flashbacks, you see both sides of the nostalgia coin. While Forrest is involved in some heavy, unsavory times, he seems to represent nostalgia’s rose-tinted glasses; conversely, Jenny is gritty reality and the darker side of life, society, and history. I don’t know if this was Zemeckis’ intent, and it’s not a perfect formula (especially concerning Jenny, whom I’ll get to later), but this movie’s flashbacks take place during the key years for the Baby Boomers, a generation that loves its own past. Zemeckis does a formidable job of balancing that equation.
4. The Soundtrack. Okay, it’s a little cheap to talk about a movie like Forrest Gump and say, “Oh, the soundtrack was awesome,” but it is a really good collection of classic rock and pop that would have been great even if the movie was a box-office failure (the film was the highest grossing movie of 1994). But the mix was awesome enough for me to buy the double-CD album and it provided an introductory look at music from the 1950s-1970s for anyone who wasn’t familiar with it and is a nice piece of comfort food for those who already were–I had spent a number of years listening to oldies on CBS 101 and classic rock on WBAB, so I knew many of the songs on the soundtrack and were actually happy to have them on a CD. Furthermore, Alan Silvestri’s score is effective as well, mixing the sweeping Americana of Aaron Coupland with the simplicity of its main character. Sure, that can get saccharine at times but it is still effective.
3. The disconnection between Forrest and everyone else. Following #4 is this, being that if you follow how Forrest interacts with the other main characters in the movie, you do appreciate the film’s depth. Forrest is a deliberately simple character and if you only follow him or care about him, you miss the point. But pay attention to the way that Gary Sinise (as Lieutenant Dan) and Robin Wright (as Jenny) play off of Tom Hanks and you see a much more complex story. I mentioned how Jenny’s life and Forrest’s life are juxtaposed when it comes to our sense of nostalgia; she’s also a foil in a sense. In fact, both Sinise and Wright act off of Hanks’ simplicity in a way that gets across the gravity of their situation. Forrest, through much of the film, believes that his relationship with Jenny will always be the way it was when they were kids (“like peas and carrots”) and whenever he pops into her life, you can see that she has a more realistic, even cynical view of things. Similarly, when you have Forrest being a rather silly ping pong player, you have Lieutenant Dan’s internal struggle. Forrest seems to be off into a world if his own, at least up until the end.
2. The set pieces/look of the film. The film is beautifully shot and the costuming and makeup all seem to be accurate (or at least Wonder Years accurate), capturing the necessary look and feel of each of the decades of its setting. I am sure there are plenty of anachronisms, but there is very little that takes me out of the film. Zemeckis knew how to make the movie have its necessary emotional impact.
1. Lieutenant Dan. Gary Sinese was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but lost to Martin Landau. I’ve never actually watched Ed Wood so I cannot make any claim that Sinise was robbed, but I can definitely say that Sinise deserved the nomination wholeheartedly. He brings both cynicism and sincerity to the role and does not chew the scenery, which is what quite a number of lesser actors would be tempted to do. Dan’s character is the most intriguing, as he endures an incredibly amount of physical and mental anguish and works through all of that before finally finding peace and happiness, something that many vets of the Vietnam War are still searching for all of these years later.
And now, after you watch this “Honest Trailer” …
The Top Five Things I Hated
5. Hanks’ Accent. I’m not sure if this is a comment on Tom Hanks’ accent itself or a comment on the vast number of bad Forrest Gump imitations that I have heard over the years (see also: Dr. Evil and Austin Powers). I cannot say for sure how accurate the accent is, either (I have met maybe three people from Alabama my entire life), but I can say that there are times when watching this film that Forrest’s voice gets so grating I want to turn the movie off. It’s a minor quibble, though, and that’s why it’s at the bottom of this list.
4. The Special Effects. At the time, a big deal was made over the way that Zemeckis inserted real historical figures into the film. Forrest is present the very moment when the University of Alabama is desegregated, he meets three presidents (Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon), and has a conversation with John Lennon that inspires the lyrics to “Imagine.” These (and his opening meeting with Elvis Presley where his dancing inspires the King of Rock and Roll’s famous hip swivel) were lauded at the time because the filmmakers digitally inserted Hanks into archival footage and dubbed the historical figures’ words. Twenty years later, it’s the worst, cheesiest part of the film. There are times when it works but for the most part it comes across as a kitschy effect that should have been left on the cutting room floor because none of the moments actually do much to advance the plot (or they could have been rewritten slightly) and are now groan-worthy.
3. The politicizing of the film. Hanks and Zemeckis, among others, are on the record as saying that Forrest Gump is apolitical. It’s true enough–in watching it, I see that the movie has more of an emotional agenda than a political one. They want you to feel warm and fuzzy and sentimental upon viewing the film, crying at the right times while feeling all the feels. Unfortunately, over the years, pundits have tried to turn this into one of the quintessential “conservative” movies, as if it reaffirms the “family values” platform that they were harping on in 1994.
And while I have no problem with a political film, I do take issue with fans or (even worse) pundits taking a film or a show and injecting their politics into it. Yes, at some point, it does seem like Zemeckis is trivializing the peace movement and counterculture, but not with the rabid zeal that others seem to make it out to be. And while that shouldn’t be a thing to hate about the movie, the label that is attached to this, or any film, can affect how you wind up viewing it because it can cloud your judgment.
2. Oversimplification. As much as I liked that the film tries to get across a sense of nuance, which should come along with telling the whole story of history, it’s way too simplistic. The balance is still off and much of the historical context comes across as effective as a learning experience as a crappy high school history class. Events are glossed over or certain elements of the time are trivialized or even ridiculed. Which, by the way, brings us to …
1. Jenny’s fate. I excuse a lot of this movie, but this is one thing that I can’t excuse and one thing that I really don’t like. The death of Jenny at the end of the film is a huge sticking point for me because of its circumstances. When Jenny and Forrest finally get married, she tells him that she’s dying from some sort of “mysterious illness” implied to be AIDS. Now, there’s nothing wrong with using the “mysterious illness” angle when it comes to AIDS in the film because the “present day” of Forrest Gump is 1982-1983 and that’s because it’s historically accurate–AIDS was barely even named and unless Forrest and Jenny were living in certain cities or in certain circles, the awareness of the disease was virtually nonexistent.
My issue, therefore, is why Jenny had to die and how her death is shown. Throughout the film’s flashbacks, we see Jenny and Forrest’s parallel lives–he goes into the army, becomes a shrimp mogul, starts a running craze, and is always the unlikely hero while Jenny drinks, drugs, and screws her way through most of the 1960s and 1970s. We sympathize with her because of her horrible childhood and how she has had absolutely no support in life. But knowing that she dies from AIDS has a feel of “she’s getting what’s coming to her,” echoing sentiments from the early days of the epidemic and even today (I still hear people say this), as if this disease is brought about by sin or a deviant lifestyle and the victims are simply getting some sort of come-uppance. For not having the same righteous path as Forrest, the upstanding man, she has to die.
Furthermore, her death is (coincidentally?) very Love Story. If you have ever seen actual footage of AIDS victims, especially from the 1980s, the disease is horrific and it ravages the body. Jenny is shown as simply being weak in bed, not emaciated and nary a KS spot on her body, something that’s kind ironic considering that Hanks had won Best Actor for Philadelphia the year before. Yes, turning her death into an AIDS drama would have prolonged an already long film, but if you’re trying to avoid that, then why have those be the circumstances surrounding her passing (other than it being timely)?
Twenty years later, Forrest Gump has not aged as well as some of its contemporaries, and has become a bit polarizing–its being up against Pulp Fiction for best picture shows the different types of audiences in 1994–but can still be worth watching, especially if you’re interested in the source of the debate.