Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Forrest Gump (1994): A Review


Running Against The Idiot Wind...

I remember quite well the grief I got when I said that I didn't like Forrest Gump.  I was accused of having no heart, no soul, and even of being 'un-American' for my intense hatred of this film. It is now almost twenty-five years since our wise fool took America by storm. Has time softened my view or has my desire to see him sink into the Alabama swamps grown?

To my surprise, time has softened my view of Forrest Gump. Not enough to like it, but now longer filled with a burning passionate hatred towards it.

Told in flashback and voiceover, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) tells his story to four people who had the misfortune to sit next to him on a Savannah, Georgia bus bench (with only one of them apparently showing any interest in the oblivious Forrest's long and rambling tale).

We learn that he has an IQ of 75, but this is not an impediment to reaching great heights, even if Forrest never actually set out to do any of the things he did. Watched over by his very protective Mama (Sally Field), Forrest among his other accomplishments which is vaguely aware of...

A.) teaches a young Elvis Presley how to shake his hips
B.) becomes an All-American football star under legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant
C.) meets President Kennedy as a result of the above
D.) fights in Vietnam where he saves most of his platoon
E.) meets President Lyndon Johnson as a result of the above, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor
F.) gives an inaudible but inspiring speech to anti-war protesters
G.) becomes a major player in Ping-Pong diplomacy
H.) meets President Nixon as a result of the above
I.) triggers Watergate
J.) inspires John Lennon to come up with the lyrics to Imagine
K.) becomes a billionaire via a combination of shrimping and investing in Apple Computers
L.) begins the jogging craze
M.) inspires both the 'Sh-It Happens' and 'Have a Nice Day' slogans (the Happy Face too).

Image result for forrest gumpOur blissfully unaware hero does have a few off moments. He informs President Kennedy 'I gotta pee' when presented to him after consuming too many Dr. Peppers and unintentionally moons President Johnson when the Commander-in-Chief mentions that Gump's war wound must be a sight. Gump's wound, he says in his strong Alabama accent, is 'in the but-tock'.

Johnson apparently is delighted by having Gump show him his 'but-tocks' in front of the other Congressional Medal of Honor recipients and the cameras.

Into his life float three people. Two he meets in Vietnam: his equally dim best friend Bubba (Mykelti Williams) and the irascible Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise), whom he always refers to as 'Lieutenant Dan'. Bubba dies in Vietnam, the only soldier Gump couldn't save. Lieutenant Dan does not, something that enrages him as he believed he was destined to die gloriously on the field of battle as had every ancestor of his in all previous American wars.

Then there's Jenny (Robin Wright). Jenny is the love of Forrest's life, his obscure object of desire. He punches out every man who hits her (of which there are at least two). He makes his idyllic love for her clear, even if he is unaware she is a victim of incest (Jenny's daddy, according to Gump, was always hugging and kissing her). He's also unaware that she is all about the counter-culture: singing folk songs (albeit nude for a strip show as a 'Beatnik Beauty' under the name 'Bobbie Dylan'), as a member of the Vietnam War protest movement, as a drugged-out disco chick, and eventually as Forrest's one-time tryst, which produced a child.

Oh, and she also dies of the most oblique case of AIDS in history.

Now a widower (as Jenny finally marries Forrest), he now has his son, Little Forrest, who unlike his dad is highly intelligent.

Image result for forrest gump
I wish I knew what hold Forrest Gump has over the American people. I suspect it is a combination of nostalgia, the idea that Forrest is 'a wise fool', a knowing sense that 'we' can grasp more than Gump (who many times seems terribly oblivious to something like Governor George Wallace blocking the entrance of black students) and his journey through America and its history.

Forrest knows bits and pieces but is never able to put things together. He shows as a child 'a young man with a guitar' how his body moves when hearing Hound Dog, and he knows that 'young man' sang songs, but he attributes his death to him singing too many songs. He suspects 'it's hard to be brothers' when commenting on the deaths of President Kennedy and his 'little brother'.

I suppose we're supposed to cheer Forrest's naivete and innocence, but I still can't. I think it is because in Forrest Gump, the title character never actually does anything of his own choice. Everything he does, and the almost always positive results that come from it, are because he follows instructions. Sometimes his following of instructions reaches outlandish levels: for example, he never learned football rules enough to know you stop running once you reach the end zone.

The first time he did that, he ran past the marching band members unlucky enough to stand in his way and into the tunnel. The only reason he stopped dead was due to the stadium and band members ordering him to stop.

Not once in Forrest Gump does he himself take the initiative to do something; the closest is when he starts running back-and-forth across America, and even he could not give you a reason as to why he did so. It's almost as a whim.

I am always amazed that few if any people actually notice how passive Gump is, how all this social and political upheaval is going on about him but which he has no reaction to. "And that's all I've got to say about that" is his constant refrain, but in truth, he never says anything at all. He never does anything either, again of his own free will. He's the perfect automaton, a robot complete with robot mannerism and inability to understand subtext.

Related imageThere are a host of issues with Forrest Gump that the sugary, schmaltzy nature of the film drowns. In 1994, the visual effects were highly lauded, winning an Oscar (one of the film's six out of a near-record 13 nominations). The mixing of Hanks with these historic figures was seen as groundbreaking and revolutionary, which they might have been.

However, in the quarter-century since, they look awful and hopelessly fake. While the John Lennon sequence even then was seen as the weakest one, it is now the Johnson section that looks the worse. It's patently obvious Johnson isn't there, the voice is nowhere near similar, and in a curious side effect, it makes Johnson look almost ghoulish. If someone watched Forrest Gump for the first time, he or she might be impressed with how Hanks was blended in with the George Wallace section, but everything after that they would immediately call out as fake.

Only the digital removing of Sinise's legs to portray Lieutenant Dan as an amputee still hold up well.

Director Robert Zemekis also drowns Forrest Gump in its soundtrack. Even when I saw it for the first time, the constant, almost frenetic nature of pop songs coming at me was grating. Now I see that Zemekis keeps pushing hit songs of the era at us, ostensibly to create atmosphere but I also think to make the CD soundtrack a two-disc set.

Take for example when Gump comes to Vietnam. We hear three songs (Fortunate Son, Can't Help Myself and Respect) within three minutes, one right after the other. A minute later, it's All Along the Watchtower, and Soul Kitchen two minutes after that. Both California Dreaming and For What It's Worth pop up two minutes after that.

When we see Forrest become a Ping-Pong master, we hear three Doors songs in almost an unhinged medley: Hello I Love You, People Are Strange and Break On Through. Maybe the lowest point is when Everybody's Talking is used in what can be a deliberate copy of Midnight Cowboy minus the sex. Yes, some songs work within the story (Fortunate Son, California Dreaming, even Free Bird as Jenny contemplates suicide), but the bombardment of songs becomes far too much to endure.

Image result for forrest gumpSpeaking of Jenny, I doubt few films have used characters as poorly as Forrest Gump. Like just about every character in Forrest Gump, Jenny has nothing to her despite a wealth of potential. Wright is a blank as this much abused, much abusing woman, resentful of being rescued but incapable of rescuing herself. Williams is just there to put in the 'shrimp' business (and as a side note, I've stubbornly refused to go to a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company Restaurant despite pleas and requests to do so, finding the whole thing almost Satanic).

Field was there just to spout homespun nonsense (and for the record, she actually says "Life is a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get" versus Forrest's statement that "Life is like a box of chocolates", not that it matters since I find that philosophy moronic: you get chocolates in a box of chocolates).

Hanks, despite the praise he's received, is not inspiring. I cannot fault him for playing the role as written: the very slow, heavily accented Southern goof. Hanks' performance makes me think of Forrest Gump as a kinder, gentler Boo Radley. It is sheer coincidence that I saw Rain Man just before I saw Forrest Gump, but I find that in both, the technique is more praised than the finding of character.

The highlight was Sinise as Lieutenant Dan, for at least he had an arc: from almost crazed commander to a man coming to peace with his situation.

I gave Forrest Gump a second chance. To its credit I didn't end up finishing it with a shaking fury like I did when I saw it in theaters. As I look on and look back on Forrest Gump, I find Shakespeare may be the source for the best review of the film:

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


1995 Best Picture Winner: Braveheart

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