Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
I have come to expect that when a film becomes universally successful both financially and critically, there will inevitably be a backlash. These days, the label “overpraise” gets swatted at most any film that gains a universal audience and I don’t think it has hit any recent success in the way that it hit Forrest Gump. When the film came out in July of 1994, everyone in the country went to see it. Everyone was mimicking Forrest’s distinctive drawl, and audiences went back to see the film over and over again. Yet, in the passing years the film has fallen out of favor with a lot of people willing to pull the film apart.
I believe that those who carp over the film aren’t looking deep enough. Forrest Gump is a portrait of our times, of the difficult things we’ve been through as a country told through the prism of a man born without the capacity to be jaded and cynical. Forrest moves like a feather on the wind from one lucky break to another carrying only the advice of his Mama, the love of his girl Jenny (who takes the low road into the hippie culture and the drug underground) and a hardbound loyalty to his friends.
Like a feather on the breeze, Forrest floats on the winds of chance. His narrow focus and lack of smarts make him a magnet for good deeds and good luck. He goes to college and becomes a football star. He goes to Vietnam and becomes a war hero. He picks up a ping pong paddle and the next thing you know, he’s competing against China’s greatest champion. He comes home and fulfills his late friend’s dream of opening a “shrimp’n bidniss”.
Along the way he is present for most of the major milestones of the last 40 years. As a boy he teaches Elvis to dance. He runs from bullies and is spotted by Bear Bryant. He ends up at the mall on Washington during the protests. He inadvertently reports the Watergate break-in. He meets presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He ends up on The Dick Cavett Show, sitting right next to John Lennon. His travels put him in front of the tapestry of our recent history. All the while, Forrest never seems to glance at these events with anything other than matter-of-fact. His lack of cynicism allows him a scope on the world that is pure and innocent but it also allows him a great deal of luck because he never seems to fall by the wayside.
Tom Hanks is probably the only actor who could embody Forrest’s spirit. The greatness of his performance is that Hanks is able to remove the persona that we know from his other work and completely envelope himself in the character – he becomes the character.
And it is a character worth spending time with. We spend time with a man we know is lacking in intelligence but is not immune to the realization of who he is (he just doesn’t express it). In the film’s most heartbreaking moment, Forrest visits his mother at her deathbed and leans forward to simply ask “What’s my destiny mama?” We’ve been present through most of his story and we’ve seen where the whims of chance carry him but he finally comes to wonder where all this will take him. And it is only fitting that he would finally address this question to the only person whose words ever made compete sense to him.
As I revisited Forrest Gump just the other night, I was caught up again in its fantastical elements but I was also struggling to figure out where to place it. What is this film? Is it history? Is it a drama? Is it a comedy? Is it a fable? Is it alternate history? My simple answer is this: it is an altering view of recent history that tries to find a new perspective on events that Americans have never really dealt with – The Kennedy Assassination, The Vietnam War, Watergate, AIDS. It does so through a man absent of cynicism. His actions represent the ways in which the American population over the past 50 years have tried, through goodness and luck, to rise to great heights but have often stumbled and fallen.