At some point, Forrest Gump effectively stopped being a movie, transformed by its own success into an unavoidable cultural moment that came equipped with everything from its own line of catchphrases to a tie-in restaurant chain. An unlikely film about an unlikely man, both with accolades heaped upon them, it’s easy to see how the earnest absurdity of its very premise invites ridicule. Over the course of a prolonged bus-stop conversation, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks)—a man with an IQ of 75—recounts to various strangers how he helped spark the sexual revolution, fell in love with his childhood friend, Jenny (Hanna Hall as a child, later Robin Wright), exposed the Watergate scandal, earned the Medal of Honor, met three American presidents, ran coast to coast, and fathered Haley Joel Osment, among other accomplishments he’s also largely unaware of. Some of Forrest’s cameos throughout history push the limits of believability or taste (such as the bit involving John Lennon), but that’s certainly intentional, and the overarching silliness finds shelter in Robert Zemeckis’s assuredly optimistic, even self-deprecating sleight of hand. It’s impossible to imagine the film having been absorbed by the culture wholesale without such conviction and affecting sincerity.
Zemeckis is a storyteller frequently drawn to tales of outsiders (characters outside of their time, their medium, their civilization), and his populist touch—equal parts everyman empathy and technical prowess—is a fitting match with Forrest’s just-below-average perspective on things, amid a deftly camouflaged f/x powerhouse. That Hanks seems to take everything happening to and around Forrest in stride, from the desegregation at the University of Alabama to the hurricane that ultimately makes the character a millionaire, was surely key to the film’s many gambles, both visual and narrative, paying off. Coming on the heels of Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs in the decade’s CGI wellspring was a magical feather and Gary Senise sans legs, to name two extremes, no less impressive for their realism, and while the celebrity lip manipulations now appear about as convincing as an episode of Mister Ed, at least they function well in the intended context of a seemingly common, profoundly humble man showing the rest of us how it’s done.
Unfortunately, that merging of the real with the impossible is both pivotal to the film at a conceptual level (in Winston Groom’s novel, the outlandishness goes even further, with Forrest ultimately traveling to space, and upon returning to Earth, getting captured by cannibals) and deeply problematic. If Forrest and Jenny’s respective paths through life are taken seriously as a reflection on society of the times, any conclusions drawn from their escapades—best represented by the scene of their walking together through Washington D.C. circa 1968, Forrest a decorated Vietnam veteran, Jenny a proud flower girl—reveal a facile understanding of the political turmoil those people experienced. One might prefer to just embrace the hokum and take it all in as if through Forrest’s eyes, though the film isn’t entirely conducive to this approach either, particularly with Jenny ultimately, almost despicably, being added to the film’s historical bullet points as an AIDS victim—a moment that lands with calculated velocity for maximum tissue dispensation.
This was among the deviations from the novel in Eric Roth’s script, and even if only incidentally, it suggests that a callous sacrifice was necessary for her counter-cultural lifestyle. Had Jenny lived, she might have been able to offer some much-needed perspective. Yet there remains something to be said for Forrest Gump’s commitment to its vision, one that’s alternately beautiful and naïve. It might hit you right in the feels, even as your eyes are rolling. To quote one of Forrest’s truest pieces of wisdom: Maybe both is happening at the same time.