Forrest Gump (1994)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Sally Field, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson

When I was in the second grade, our teacher read “Bridge to Terabithia” to the class. To this day, it’s still the saddest work of fiction I’ve ever encountered. At the time, I wondered how one could justify reading it to young children. I thought that our fables should always be happy, joyful, and otherwise free of consequence or incident. In other words, not having a darn thing to do with real life. That was what growing up was supposed to be for. I did not consider, then, what the author was sharing with me. While children should be allowed to laugh, play and not have a care in the world for politics, money or other adult pursuits, they should at some point be prepared for the concept of tragedy. At the very least, it should be explained to them in a way that they can understand it. There is a moment early on in “Forrest Gump” when the young Forrest and his friend Jenny are praying in the cornfield behind her father’s house. As soon as I saw this scene, the tears started flowing. The perfect, perfect score from Alan Silvestri wasn’t helping either. There was no question in my mind that a dark cloud was looming just over the horizon. Forrest is the type of person for whom “Bridge to Terabithia” would be difficult, though not impossible to explain. “Curious George” is more his speed.

In 1981, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) is sitting on a park bench, clutching a box of chocolates and waiting for a bus. While he waits, Forrest tells his life story to those who sit by him. From his birth up until what for him is the present day, Forrest tells the account of a number of amazing things he’s accomplished in his life, and all of the famous people he has helped inspire. He is invited to the White House on three separate occasions, meeting John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. He plays football for Paul “Bear” Bryant at the University of Alabama, becomes a genuine war hero in Vietnam, plays ping pong professionally for the United States in China, and even forms a lucrative shrimp company called Bubba Gump, named after both himself and fellow Vietnam soldier Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue (Mykelti Williamson). It was Bubba whose idea the whole “shrimping business” thing was before he died in Vietnam. Any one of these things would be enough to distinguish Forrest Gump, and enough to be life-altering for anyone else, but still Forrest takes it all in with a perspective most men his age forsook long ago. As the entire world around him changes, Forrest remains constant.

Winning Best Actor for “Forrest Gump,” Tom Hanks joined Spencer Tracy as the only two men to be presented with the award in back-to-back years, a feat which no one else has since accomplished. It is true that Forrest (along with all other characters in the film) is little more than an archetype. Disregarding that fact, Hanks does manage to transform himself. He disappears so completely into the role that it becomes hard to tell where Forrest Gump ends and Tom Hanks begins. In fact, Hanks puts as much effort into bringing to life this resident of Greenbow, Alabama with an IQ of 75 as any character I’ve seen him play.

Not all of the credit for “Forrest Gump” (winner for Best Picture of 1994) can go to Tom Hanks. Gary Sinise, as Lt. Dan Taylor, is also something special. His work is so admired amongst the Wounded Veterans crowd that he has gone on more recently to do commercials for their cause. Meanwhile, Robin Wright gives the performance of her career as the tragically self-destructive Jenny Curran. Prior to this movie, my only exposure to Robin Wright had been in “The Princess Bride,” her very first starring role in a feature film, as Princess Buttercup. Both movies are pure fantasy, both roles are archetypes, but Jenny and Buttercup couldn’t be any more different. One waits for true love to rescue her. The other has true love waiting for her, but she believes herself to be beyond saving.

The soundtrack is beyond incredible. Alan Silvestri’s score aside, there is a barrage of period music, most of it from the late 1960’s-early 1970’s, what I consider to be the second major revolution in the industry after the Classical period of the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of the songs are so expertly placed that I can’t help but be amused by their timing. We hear Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” just before a ground battle in Vietnam, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” during a decidedly low point in Jenny’s life, and in a particularly side-splitting homage to 1969 Best Picture Winner “Midnight Cowboy,” that film’s theme song, “Everybody’s Talkin'” by Harry Nilsson, helps the scene deliver itself with a wink and nod. I’m not sure whether it’s director Robert Zemeckis or somebody who regularly works with him, but someone involved here is clearly a “Midnight Cowboy” fan. My evidence is that this is not the first of Zemeckis’s films to feature a reenactment of that movie’s most famous scene. 1989’s “Back to the Future Part II” also has a character crossing the street, nearly being run over, and uttering the lines, “Hey! I’m walking here! I’m walking here!”

When the movie was first released, there was debate among certain U.S. politicians as to the overall message of the movie. Certain people believed it to be pushing a conservative agenda, citing an idealized version of the 1950’s vs. the portrayal of the counterculture of the 1960’s, as well as all the talk about the subject of destiny, as proof. Certain people did not consider that the movie might not have a political message of any kind, or that remembering one’s history IS being promoted. But then, these were the same geniuses who had adopted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” as their theme song ten years earlier, evidently only having paid attention to the chorus. Frankly, I could give a rat’s hindquarters whether or not there’s a political message to be found, or the fact that the overall story is far too fantastical and replete with coincidence. As the movie’s timeline ends around the same time as my own birth in 1982 (likely a few months after), what attracts me the most to “Forrest Gump” is its portrayal of an era which is just out of my reach, but which my parents’ generation lived through. So many wonderful things and so many terrible things happened all at the same time. I, at least, had the advantage of coming into the world with knowledge of how that story ended.

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