In Defense of ‘Forrest Gump’

Sometimes timing is simply beyond a filmmaker’s control, and Forrest Gump’s low standing among a certain (very vocal) portion of movie fans might have more to do with its timing than anything. To be precise, Forrest Gump took on Pulp Fiction at the 1995 Oscars and won, handily; it took home six Oscars to Fiction’s one (for Best Original Screenplay, the only one where the two films weren’t in competition). And in that face-off, Gump was set up as the kind of syrupy, heartwarming studio picture that Fiction was out to destroy — a perception that persists to this day. But Forrest Gump, which begins a one-week, 20th anniversary IMAX re-release this Friday, isn’t as simple as that; it’s a weirder, darker, and better movie than its reputation suggests.

To be sure, it’s a film whose most iconic elements are far from its finest. None of us ever need to hear that “life is like a box of chocolates” nonsense again, or to hear some schmuck yell “Run, Forrest, run” like it’s the height of wit. Alan Silvestri’s twinkly score (like he’s done any other kind) doesn’t hold up at all; it sounds like music for the simplistic tearjerker Gump’s detractors consider it to be. The lazy, greatest-hits soundtrack became something of a Big Chill for the ‘90s (if there’s a more obnoxiously on-the-nose music cue than Jenny’s invitation to San Francisco preceding “If You’re Going to San Francisco,” I can’t think of it). And that long cross-country running sequence remains a disaster, an unnecessary detour that all but derails the picture’s otherwise elegant third act.

But if you can separate the film from all of that, from the cultural baggage that it’s acquired over the past two decades, and approach it with something like fresh eyes, it’s sort of surprising what an odd and risky movie it is. Director Robert Zemeckis pitches the tale as neither comedy nor drama, but as a loose, vignette-heavy mixture of pop history and folk storytelling. “I’ve never seen a movie quite like Forrest Gump,” Roger Ebert wrote in his original, four-star review, noting that Eric Roth’s screenplay “has the complexity of modern fiction, not the formulas of modern movies.”

Robin Wright and Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump"

He’s right. It’s full of peculiar little touches, like the flash-montage of Lt. Dan’s “long, great military tradition” of ancestors dying in battle. It’s got Twain-esque descriptive passages, like Forrest’s memories of the different kinds of rain in Vietnam. And its basic sunniness is offset by moments of dark humor that you’ve probably forgotten, like his description of what George Wallace did after their encounter at the University of Alabama (“A few years later, that angry little man at the schoolhouse door thought it’d be a good idea and ran for president” — gunshot — “but somebody thought that it wasn’t”).

This is not to imply that its reputation as a tearjerker — with whatever connotations you attach to that term — is inaccurate. But there’s nothing inherently evil about a film that aims to move an audience, so long as it does so with some degree of honesty. You don’t have to feel any genuine emotion when Bubba dies in Forrest’s arms, or when maimed Lt. Dan weeps for the combat death he wishes he’d had, or when Forrest meets his son for the first time and asks, “Is he smart, or is he…?” To feel nothing in those and other moments requires a pretty healthy dose of cynicism, but hey, it can be done.

There’s an argument to be made — and a compelling one — that Gump’s most troubling legacy is its politics. In the years since its release, Gump has been branded, in some quarters, a rather insidious piece of conservative propaganda. Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman picked up the scent in his original review — one of the few non-raves of its initial release — branding its hero “the mythical, clean-cut spirit of the ’50s emerging unscathed from the messiness that came after,” in a “dishonest” movie that “reduces the tumult of the last few decades to a virtual-reality theme park: a baby-boomer version of Disney’s America.”

In the years that followed, conservative commentators would come to embrace that perspective; the National Review Online named it one of the 25 “best conservative movies” of all time, calling Gump “an amiable dunce who is far too smart to embrace the lethal values of the 1960s,” while his fair Jenny “chooses a different path; she becomes a drug-addled hippie, with disastrous results.” Are they right? To be sure, its view of ‘60s revolutionaries is problematic at best, seen most clearly in the “Sorry I had a fight in the middle of your Black Panther party” scene, with its portrayal of Jenny’s boyfriend and SEC chapter leader as a vile woman-beater (who blames his behavior on “this war, and that lying sonofabitch Johnson!”). And the way that Jenny dies for her sins of sex, drugs, and rock and roll certainly conforms to a particular worldview — should you choose to read it that way. (Ebert sees Forrest and Jenny’s parallel journeys as narrative efficiency: “Eventually it becomes clear that between them Forrest and Jenny have covered all of the landmarks of our recent cultural history, and the accommodation they arrive at in the end is like a dream of reconciliation for our society.”)

But even if that’s all true, is it fair to boil a film’s entire value down to its political ethos? This is not to devalue the importance of understanding a movie’s point of view, or being aware of its subtext (or text, even) — but merely to note how reductive it is to judge cinema (or books, or music, or art) solely on that basis. After all, if I’m only interested in films that cater to my politics, I have to stop watching Ghostbusters and sit through Redacted again. I have to stop watching John Wayne movies and warm up to Danny Kaye. And I have to deny that Forrest Gump is a funny, moving, entertaining, and rewatchable slice of popular filmmaking.

And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Here’s Quentin Tarantino in 1995, on the eve of Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump’s Oscar battle:

They’ve been making such a tremendous deal about the fact that, “Oh wow, Forrest Gump is the exact opposite of what Pulp Fiction is,” and vice versa. But I don’t see them as being as drastically different or right and left. If you’re familiar with bob’s work, actually there’s a tremendous amount of acid running through it. I actually think it’s a black comedy… To me, when I was watching the movie, the moving moments and the touching moments, they are meant to be moving and touching, and they are. But the comedy element running through there — subversive is the wrong word — but there is a big edge to it. A movie about that guy as the number one guy of America of the last 20 years has got a bite.

And, well, that’s all I have to say about that.