1994 was a freaking great year for movies. Masterpieces like Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Quiz Show and Ed Wood filled theater screens and inspired a new generation of filmmakers to come. Disney gave us the gorgeous The Lion King, Kevin Smith reinvigorated indie cinema with Clerks and the world was introduced to Jim Carrey through not one but three feature films, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, and The Mask. All of these films kicked ass in their own respective and unique ways. However, there is one film from 1994 that sticks out like a sore thumb. It just so happens that this film carries the Oscar for best picture. What a wasted opportunity.
By now everybody should be familiar with the plot of Forrest Gump. It is basically a telling of several decades in Forrest Gump’s life, a simple-minded and naive but benevolent man from Alabama. In these decades of his life, Forrest Gump experiences and even influences some of the pivotal historical moments in the latter-half of 20th century in America. Throughout all of these events, Jenny, Forrest’s childhood friend, occasionally appears in and out of Forrest’s life.
Based off just hearing the story and concept, it sounds like an awesome film. There’s plenty of opportunities for humor, for drama, for adventure and most importantly, for reflection on the meaning of life and success. Forrest Gump teases these elements so effectively that it’s a shame none of them actually come through.
My biggest problem with the film is in its message. The insidious thing about the film is how it twists the classic story of the underdog rising to the top by saying that passivity and obedience is the key to success. Throughout the entirety of the film, Forrest is rewarded and praised for his passivity, which has nothing to do with his low IQ, and his ability to obey orders. He becomes a great American football player not because of true skill and strategy but because he can obey the command to run like hell. Forrest becomes a millionaire because someone else invested in a company that he knows absolutely nothing about, cheekily referring to Apple Computers as a “fruit company”. The film is showing that in order to be successful and happy in life, you shouldn’t question anything and do as you are told.
What I’ve just described makes the film’s message questionable, but what makes it truly awful is how the film goes out of its way to show the consequences of being counterculture. While Forrest is sitting there letting life carry him on some wonderful journey, his lover Jenny is someone who wants change in such tumultuous times for America. She becomes a hippie, desires social change, goes to discos, tries to become a folk singer and does basically everything opposite to what Forrest does. And what happens to her? She is sexually abused, gets addicted to drugs and eventually dies of an AIDS-like disease. Hell, the very reason Forrest came to love her was because as kids she was the only person on the school bus who would allow Forrest to sit with her, which is against the “social norm”. Other characters, like Bubba and Lt. Dan, have ambitions in life but are ultimately treated to misfortune. So who stands shining out all of them? Of course it’s Forrest, not only the man with wealth, medals and visits to the White House, but no thought or ambition.
With a message and character like that, it’s impossible for me to take the film seriously which leads to the next major problem, the tone. Dramedies often have the problem with balancing the dramatic moments with the comedic ones, as well as making sure the tone adds weight to the situation while still maintaining a level of lightheartedness. Unfortunately, Forrest Gump succumbs to this problem. All of the events in the film are seen through Forrest’s eyes, and he seems to take on a childish perspective of the world which can occasionally be used for comedic effect. However, certain moments in the film that demand a more serious approach are diluted by Forrest’s silly explanations and narration. Even when he is being sincere, such as the scene where he speaks to Jenny’s grave, director Robert Zemeckis cranks up the sentimentality and the musical score swells up. The emotion isn’t enhanced, it’s smudged and manipulated to the point of cringeworthiness.
If there are any redeeming factors to the film, it is definitely in the performances, most notably Tom Hanks’ leading performance as the titular character. Playing a character like Forrest Gump is like walking on a tightrope, there are so many possible ways to falter, from the accent to the odd facial expressions. Luckily, they got the most likable actor in America. Hanks, having just come hot right off of Philadelphia, also showed that he had the acting chops to pull it off, not just the persona. Hanks’ expressive yet controlled portrayal of Forrest can win even the heaviest of hearts which is why Hanks and Forrest have become one unified icon in film history.
The supporting players are equally captivating. Mykelti Williamson does a great job at being Forrest’s trusty companion, Bubba, and displaying someone’s adorably excessive passion for shrimps. Gary Sinise as Lt. Dan Taylor showed the right amount of sternness but also provided progression in his performance. He’s been angry, he’s been depressed, he’s been joyous, he’s been thankful and every one of those emotions Mr. Sinise mastered with a great combination of subtlety and dramatic tension. Jenny isn’t the most likable or interesting of characters but Robin Wright portrays her sufficiently, hitting all of the right notes of pain and grace.
On a technical level, Forrest Gump is quite an achievement. Zemeckis is definitely no stranger to the use of visual effects with masterpieces like the Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Forrest Gump was jumping onto the CGI boat of the early 1990s, but unlike Terminator 2: Judgement Day or Jurassic Park, the CGI is more subtle, used to place Forrest in historical footage, with tons of great moments involving several presidents, John Lennon and many other historical figures. It’s extremely effective and still holds up to this day.
More than 20 years have past since the release of Forrest Gump. It was overwhelmingly popular then and it is still popular today, with people quoting those same classic lines. Whenever the film comes on, I can’t help but admire its sweetness and somewhat original concept. However, its glaring problems in message, tone and for just being too sentimental prevent the film from being a grand masterpiece like many of its 1994 peers. And don’t get me started on that damn feather. I give Forrest Gump a B-.
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