Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump is one of the most divisive movies you’ll encounter, assuming your reading list includes critics across the political and philosophical spectrum.

Is it conservative propaganda… or a populist romp through late 20th century American history? A goopy narrative muddle… or a sprawling ode to the messiness of the American experience?

I wish I could give you clean answers, but my thoughts around it are just as jumbled as the movie itself.

Let’s start with the good: It’s hard to imagine anyone other than peak Tom Hanks anchoring this film. He has as little idea as I do what the movie wants to be, riding the film’s schizophrenic tones rather than anchoring them into something coherent. But he’s both skilled and charismatic enough to carry it all the way, even if his aww-shucks tics eventually grate. (Just say “Jenny”! My skin crawls every time he says “Jehn-ahy”!)

Another strength is the movie’s soundtrack. Sure, the needle drops are cliche or tacky. (The worst being “Running on Empty” accompanying… you guessed it, Forrest running.) But there are certainly worse ways to make your movie watchable then licensing 50 or so of the 500 greatest rock songs ever written. No punches are pulled on the song selection. As I watched, I wondered: Will the movie use “All Along the Watchtower,” “For What It’s Worth,” or “Fortunate Son” for its Vietnam segment? The answer: yes.

I think that Vietnam portion is actually the movie’s strongest stretch: Robert Zemeckis spikes in quite a bit of dark comedy — the montage of Bubba narrating his love of shrimp as he and Forrest go through basic training is brilliant.

And then there’s Gary Sinise. He sometimes seems to be the only person who knows what the best version of this movie looks like: a heightened, almost campy, mirror of a transformative but complicated era. When he’s on screen, Forrest Gump is unequivocally great, accepting and accentuating the contradictions of the film. His arc of discovering peace and gratitude towards Forrest is genuinely moving.

Forrest Gump is a big movie. Its runtime clocks in at about 2:15, but it feels a lot more like three hours. Zemeckis and writer Eric Roth pound us with content of varying beauty and depth. Some of the movie’s scope pays off: By the end of the film, you really feel like you’ve witnessed a long and meaningful life, even if the events making up that life are kinda random horseshit.

Indeed, that’s the other side of the coin: So much of this movie is nonsense or worse.

The bald-faced travesty of Forrest Gump is that it treats a half-century worth of counter-culture as part big goofy joke. part debauched pigsty. Jenny is not a character so much as a jaded, revisionist cipher for “rabblerousers” of all stripes. The gauntlet she goes through is downright mean.

A true appreciation of the kaleidoscopic American arc wouldn’t reject or demonize dissidence like this. Lumping disco and the Black Panthers together is lazy at best. Letting their apparent spokesperson die of AIDS is a misguided eye roll of a plot point.

It doesn’t help that Robin Wright is an astonishing zero in this movie, failing to elevate the material or shape her sporadic beats into anything resembling the vibrant character Jenny could have been.

And Forrest himself isn’t all that interesting as a protagonist. Like the image of the floating feather, he just drifts from scenario to scenario, oblivious to his own impact.

Some of the movie’s feel-good episodes are just plodding malarkey, the ping pong bit being the most ridiculous. In general, there’s a proportional relationship between how grounded the scenarios are and how compelling the film is.

The whole history-influencing gimmick feels goofier and less interesting as the movie goes. It’s a spiritual cousin to Shrek-esque pop culture comedy where the dopamine hit comes from recognizing the scenario and shaking your head at Forrest’s cluelessness. One cheap gag after another.

And so, as I zoom out on Forrest Gump, my opinion on the movie is a jumble. It’s a well-crafted, crowd-pleasing, and ambitious blockbuster with tons of passion. It’s also an ideological nightmare and tonal misfire. It’s a 135-minute tug of war between catastrophe and masterpiece. Catasterpiece?

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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