Friday Film Focus: Forrest Gump

I have never met anyone like Forrest Gump.

For that matter, I’ve never seen a film quite like Forrest Gump before.

Any attempt I give you to try and explain this movie will risk making it sound boring or conventional. In all actuality, it’s far from that. It’s a comedy, I think. Or perhaps a drama. Or maybe, its just a dream. Forrest Gump is a movie heartbreaker of oddball wit and startling grace. It’s hero, played by Tom Hanks, is a thoroughly decent man. Despite possessing an IQ of about 75, Gump somehow manages to become involved in every major event in American history between 1950-80. He survives them all with unequivocal niceness and honesty. Forrest is also thoroughly clever. As such, he see things for exactly what they are.

Forrest is born to an Alabama boarding house owner (Sally Field). His mother tries to correct his posture by making him wear leg braces — though she also never once criticizes his mind. When Forrest gets called “stupid” by his classmates, his mother tells him “stupid is as stupid does.” In time, Forrest turns out to be incapable of doing anything less than profound. Also, when his braces fall off, it turns out he can run like the wind. That’s how he gets a college scholarship to play football at the University of Alabama. His life story eventually becomes a running gag about Forrest’s inevitable good luck.

Gump, the “All American” football player, eventually becomes Gump the decorated war hero in Vietnam. From there, Gump is a Ping-Pong champion, a shrimp boat captain, and also a millionaire stockholder (which includes him getting shares in some fruit company named Apple). After all of that, Forrest runs across country and then retraces his steps back. Forrest doesn’t quite understand everything that’s happening to him. But he doesn’t have to. He understands everything he needs to know, and the rest — as the film suggests — is surplus.

Forrest even understands what it means to love. He falls in love with a grad school classmate named Jenny (played by Robin Wright). The connection between the two is deep, and Forrest ultimately never falls out of love with her. As Jenny says to her classmate, “Forrest, you don’t know what love is.” An abused child, Jenny’s life path is a desperate wander to find solid ground. She falls prey to every social movement and fad of the times. Forrest is the opposite — as his unwavering strength and sense of right and wrong protect him from being caught up in social slides. Jenny’s genuflections reflect her lack of firm values and inner confidence.

The film is basically taking Forrest on his tour of recent American history. It’s a wonder to behold. Forrest Gump is such an accomplished feat of cyber-cinema that it makes these tricks, not to mention subtler ones, look amazingly seamless. As he did in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Back to the Future films, director Robert Zemeckis is bound to leave viewers marveling at the sheer wizardry behind such effects. He uses computerized visual legerdemain to place Gump in historic situations with actual people.

For example, Forrest stands next to the school house door with George Wallace. He also teaches Elvis how to swivel his hips, he visits the White house numerous times, he’s on the Dick Cavett show with John Lennon, and in a sequence that will have you rubbing your eyes with its realism, he addresses a Vietnam-era peace rally on the Mall in Washington DC.

Special effects are also used in creating the character of Forrest’s Vietnam friend Lt. Dan (a wonderful Gary Sinise) — who quite convincingly loses his legs. Using carefully dubbed voices and selected TV clips, Zemeckis is able to create some hilarious moments (such as when LBJ examines a wound in what Forrest describes as his “butt-ox”). The biggest laugh, however, is when Nixon inquires where Forrest is staying in DC. He then recommends the Watergate.

Structured as Forrest’s autobiography, and centering on his lifelong love for Jenny, Forrest Gump has the elements of an emotionally gripping story. Luckily, Forrest Gump has Tom Hanks. He’s the only major American movie star who could have played Forrest without condescension and without succumbing to the film’s Pollyanna-ish tone. If Forrest is a holy fool, Mr. Hanks makes his holiness very apparent. Only in this touching, imaginatively childlike performance does the film display any emotional weight. Sitting on a bench at a bus stop during most of the film, Gump eagerly recounts his life story for a succession of strangers. Mr. Hanks’s Forrest has an unerring sincerity and charm.

Deserving of special mention among the actors are Mykelti Williamson (the Army buddy who turns out to be a perfect match for Forrest), and Mr. Sinise — whose dark, bitter performance offers an element of surprise. Ms. Wright is strong and resilient as the material requires. Ms. Field, unfazed by the job of playing Mr. Hanks mother, charges through the story in flowery, genteel Southern costumes. Like everything else about “Forrest Gump,” the characters look a little too good to be true. With each strange or perplexing situation, Hanks erupts with the smallest twitch or turn. This signals Forrest’s deep-seated disapproval or, in special other cases, his gleeful, thankful wonderment.

Image Source: GQ