Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)

04Oct11

Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump), Robin Wright (Jenny), Gary Sinise (Lieutenant Dan), Sally Field (Mrs. Gump). Screenplay by Eric Roth. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Rating: 12. Running time: 142 minutes.

For anyone who has seen Drive yet, or Never Let Me Go or An Education for that matter, you will know about that Carey Mulligan look: the puppy dog eyes and the small and cute smile. You may wonder what this digression is doing at the start of a Forrest Gump review, but unfortunately I think the only way I can explain the sweet sentimentality that surrounds this film is by putting it this way: none of us may look so lovely carrying it, but by the end of Forrest Gump all of our faces are naturally wearing that warm, Mulligan look. We cannot help but be touched.

Not that you didn’t know that already. This film, after all, has become a legend, and by now I imagine I know noone in their teens or older who hasn’t witnessed its magic first hand and felt swept away by its simply awesome humanity. That the film manages to do this to us is hard to accept. More often than not my cynicism resists it, but here it becomes impossible. It’s not just Hanks, though he does pull off a performance that noone else could, and as narrator he gives us a voice and delivery to rival Freeman’s in Shawshank (also of ’94, alongside Pulp Fiction. What a year). It is, rather, more like the mixture of that acting, the supersmart script and a director’s touch that somehow steers clear of every cinematic cliff threatening to hurl the car off the road.

I think the film succeeds in avoiding feeling cheap because Forrest’s life is retrospectively tied up with every aspect of the American story that matters, right through from the 50s to the 80s. Just imagine if instead of it being Vietnam, Gump was sent on a fantasy war as part of his life story. Or try and picture the film without his chance but hugely important encounters with Elvis, Lennon and the like. Having Gump present in our perception of the past and allowing him to steer the direction of history is, narratively speaking, an easy trick – it just plays off our love of American culture and makes us enjoy it all over again. But the difficulty is greater in the CGI. It was no mean feat in ’94 to film Hanks shaking hands with JFK in archive footage, and seeing the latter’s reaction to the former’s remark that he’s gotta pee. The film has moment after moment like this scattered generously throughout its duration; from triggering Watergate to inspiring Imagine and becoming a founding investor in Apple (or as Forrest sees it, ‘some fruit company’), Gump is everywhere and eventually a ‘gozillionaire,’ and we’re happy for this visual autobiography to keep rolling for the rest of the day.

Without the references to reality, this wouldn’t work. Instead of being a delightful story of serendipity it would just be an Oscarbait film about a sweet simpleton who luckily pulls off the pursuit of happiness. And that political undercurrent – a paean to conservative, traditional values and living; a critique of the life-consequences of counterculture – threatens to disturb the balance here. It’s only because the story is so gripping in its romance and comedy and drama that it takes a goon to focus too hard on the implicit life advice. But if you do step back and take a look at the derivable messages, it starts to look like the scriptwriter is sponsored by a GOP-Church trust fund.

Indeed, talk of destiny crops up a little too often here, as does the power of finding God. The line is arguably crossed when the story has Jenny die from an unknown virus. It is an unnecessary, disappointing final touch. It avoids, perhaps, an otherwise inevitable happy-ever-after, but the costs incurred in achieving this aren’t worth the hassle. Firstly, it’s the first moment the film feels openly preachy; but even worse is that it implies the only reason she gets back in touch with Forrest is to secure a future for their child. No doubt the late marriage is supposed to dampen these fears, but the illness ensures her motives seem at least slightly insincere. And further, if the intention is to provide an opportunity for Hanks to pour his heart out and secure that Best Actor victory, the scene ten minutes earlier in which he first meets his son is more than sufficient for this purpose anyway. I shivered more when I saw his acting there; it was outstanding, and it was more than enough.

These worries, though, are minor in the scheme of things. Attacking Forrest Gump on any grounds is like pettily criticising the Mona Lisa for having one misplaced microscopic flicker of paint in the corner. It’s not Top Ten material, and it shouldn’t have won Best Picture, if only because Pulp Fiction, whilst harder to appreciate because it’s not emotional, was undoubtedly the greater and more influential film. But that’s barely an insult either. This is special, novel drama; an easily cherishable film.

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