The film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and adopted by Eric Roth from a novel by Winston Groom, functioned as something of a 40-year tour of the Baby Boom generation, through the eyes of the titular Southern simpleton (Tom Hanks). Hanks’ Forrest experiences virtually every major event of the latter 20th century, from the rise of Elvis to the Vietnam War to the zenith of Reagan-era capitalism.
The story, in typical Zemeckis fashion, was told using cutting-edge-at-the-time special effects, which included splicing Forrest into historical footage along with the likes of John Lennon and various presidents, while also making it appear that Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise) had lost his legs. It was soundtracked by a memorable Alan Silvestri score, along with a suite of rock hits from the ’70s and ’80s.
…Hanks became the first and only person in history to win Best Actor Oscars in consecutive years.
Gump was a massive hit, the biggest box office success of 1994; the film and the original Lion King, released within weeks of each other, each more than doubled the domestic gross of the #3 movie that year. Gump won six Academy Awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture (besting Pulp Fiction) and Hanks became the first and only person in history to win Best Actor Oscars in consecutive years.
Forrest Gump nearly immediately entered the canon of popular 20th century American film. It got frequent television re-airings, and it found itself quoted and referenced often in the years after its release, most notably in one of my favorite episodes of The X-Files: “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.”
As with most mainstream hits of the past, not everyone loved Forrest Gump, and there has been a vocal anti-Gump contingent essentially all along.
A general critique has emerged over the years about Forrest Gump, which is based on a few points:
Forrest is a nearly completely passive protagonist. He doesn’t really do things, but rather things merely happen to him.
Forrest, who goes through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s without ever doing anything controversial or challenging to the powers that be, is rewarded with endless success, opportunities, praise, and fame. Jenny (Robin Wright), who is rebellious and embraces drugs, anti-war activism, and the counterculture, is constantly punished, with abuse, abandonment, and eventually an early death from AIDS.
Like a lot of movies of its era, Forrest Gump continually sides with traditional conservative values, even though it’s virtually certain that everyone behind it creatively is a liberal Democrat. The film tells the story of the ’60s through the ’80s while completely taking a pass on virtually every political question of the time, most egregiously in the scene where Forrest stumbles into addressing an anti-war demonstration and the sound conveniently cuts out so that we can’t hear what he says.
Forrest Gump, as a whole, is schmaltzy and manipulative. No director is more associated with on-the-nose musical needle drops than Robert Zemeckis, and Gump may be the most egregious example.
The film’s overviewing view of 20th century Americana is heavily white-focused, while Hanks is a non-mentally handicapped actor playing a mentally handicapped character – both the sorts of things that are much more frowned upon today than a quarter century ago.
It’s an absolute outrage that Forrest Gump won the Best Picture Oscar over Pulp Fiction.
Backlash to the Backlash
My reaction to these views is similar to the one I have to a lot of these types of critiques: I concede the points, and even agree with them. But they don’t do a lot to undo the best things about the film.
The film really is an emotional powerhouse, and the third act (everything that happens after Forrest leaves the bench) is among the best work of Hanks, Wright, and Zemeckis’ careers. This is the sort of film that the phrase “problematic fave” was invented for. And yes, I agree – Pulp Fiction absolutely deserved Best Picture, although 1994 is far from the only instance in history of the wrong film winning. Gump is a much more deserving Best Picture winner than, say, Green Book.
…Pulp Fiction absolutely deserved Best Picture, although 1994 is far from the only instance in history of the wrong film winning.
As usual, it’s worth noting that no one critiquing Forrest Gump today is calling for the film to banned or suppressed, and even if they did they wouldn’t have the power to do so. One of the producers, naturally, said last month that the film could never be made today, even as he was giving an interview about its brief big-screen re-release.
The magic still stands, when it comes to the film. Being treacly and corny, when done right, can be a virtue, and this is one film where it certainly is.
Wherever you stand on Forrest Gump, we can all agree on one thing: It’s a good thing that the proposed sequel – which would have had Forrest in O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco, present at Princess Diana’s death, and other ’90s touchstones – was never actually made.