‘Forrest Gump’ Is Actually a Good Movie That Gets Better with Age — Even If Its Visual Effects Don’t (2024)

Forrest Gump” has an odd, essentially contradictory position in pop culture. But that befits an odd, sometimes contradictory movie.

Thirty years after its July 1994 release, “Forrest Gump” remains beloved among casual film fans — the kind of picture easily tossed into a montage advertising a movie channel or that randomly pops up in Netflix’s top 10 for no obvious reason. But Robert Zemeckis’ Best Picture winner also endures as an object of scorn for cinephiles (and the extremely online). Usually, as the years go by, either love or scorn wins out in the battle for a film’s reputation.

But with “Forrest Gump,” both camps remain entrenched and hardly aware of each other. “You go online, they hated ‘Forrest Gump,’” Ray Romano says in “The Big Sick” to explain why he hates the internet: “Frickin’ best movie ever.”

“Forrest Gump’s” alleged sins vary in size and culpability. For one, it had the gall to win the top Oscar over “Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” condemning it to the same fate as “Driving Miss Daisy” before it and “Shakespeare in Love” after, reduced to a stick with which to beat the Academy. But it also gets heat for more substantive reasons — that it’s a weepy, sentimental nostalgia trip for baby boomers; that it’s a vehicle to show off then-impressive digital effects that have aged like milk; that it’s racist, sexist, ableist and reactionary. There’s just one problem: for all this conventional wisdom about “Forrest Gump,” and none of it is true.

As he waits at the bus stop in a light suit and dirty Nikes, an intellectually disabled man named Forrest (Tom Hanks) tells his life story, from his childhood in 1950s Alabama right through to the 1980s, to whatever strangers happen to sit on the bench next to him. He loves his late mother (Sally Field), who raised him as a single parent, and has spent his whole life in love with his school friend Jenny (Robin Wright). Oh, and he was directly involved in just about every major event in that period of American history. He taught Elvis his moves, was there for the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door and the March on the Pentagon, and exposed Watergate. He inspired both John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the “sh*t Happens” bumper sticker. He met so many presidents.

Much of Forrest’s historical adventures involve Hanks-as-Forrest being digitally inserted into historical footage, an effect often cited as evidence the film has aged poorly. And I have no problem admitting it does look goofy. The way the mouths of historical figures move reminds me more than a little of a face drawn with marker on your fist and thumb to make a puppet. (And VFX pioneer Zemeckis is once again the subject of online scrutiny with the de-aging effects shown in the trailer for his upcoming film “Here.”)

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But “Forrest Gump” isn’t a straight drama with some goofy-looking CGI. It’s a goofy comedy with some goofy-looking CGI, and so that becomes part of its charm. Both love and scorn of “Forrest Gump” tend to get caught up in its weepy, sentimental side, and so it’s easy to forget just how funny it is. Not funny in a dramedy way, either: Sure, Forrest and Jenny’s love story makes me cry, but for most of its running time, “Forrest Gump” is a zany comedy more in the tradition of the Zucker Brothers than your average Best Picture winner.

Forrest runs across America for years just because he felt like running. He drinks 15 Dr. Peppers before he meets John F. Kennedy since, after all, they’re on the house. The whole film is built on great gag writing – Forrest apologizing for ruining their Black Panther party, say, or his army buddy Bubba finally getting to the end of his long, long list of shrimp dishes — and uses irony to mine humor from the gap between the audience’s knowledge and Forrest’s understanding. It is, at times, darkly comic, and at others, an out-and-out spoof: “Everybody’s Talkin’” from “Midnight Cowboy” plays as Forrest pushes Lt. Dan around New York in his wheelchair, and it could slide neatly into “Not Another New Hollywood Movie.” That “Forrest Gump” manages to balance its wackiness and sentimentality — never undercutting one with the other yet never falling off that tightrope — is a minor miracle.

“Gump is every bit as unconventional as‘Pulp Fiction,’” Ben Svetkey argues, “Eric Roth’s screenplay ignores all the formulas of film-making, and the movie unfolds more like a modern novel than a motion picture. It’s a film with no villains; no central conflict and no over-arching narrative tension. It’s not a comedy, and it’s not a drama, and it’s not any other genre you can pin down.”

Yet the conventional wisdom makes out that “Forrest Gump” is as guileless and sweet as its titular hero. Or else, it wants you to perceive it as guileless and sweet, like its hero, wrapping the film’s noxious appeal to traditional values in a blanket of nostalgia. You either fall for its charms or have the good sense to outsmart it. Jennifer Hyland Wang tries to outsmart “Forrest Gump” by arguing that it idealizes racism out of its vision of 1950s Alabama — but the movie opens with a gag about Forrest not understanding that he’s named after a Ku Klux Klan leader, self-reflexively criticizing the story as Forrest tells it first and funnier. “Forrest Gump” might be a confection, but it’s a sour candy one. And it’s much smarter than it gets credit for.

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And so, for the record, is “Forrest Gump.” Forrest is a tangle of not-quite-contradictions. He’s “stupid” — with an IQ of 75, five points below the normal range — but a great soldier, a great athlete, a great husband, a great father. I cannot overemphasize how many presidents he meets. And that is not because, like Peter Sellers in “Being There,” he’s mistaken as deeper than he is. Neither is it because he overcomes his disabilities, pulling himself up by his bootstraps to seize the American Dream. He is not the driver of his own story, and yet his right-place, right-time life — so outlandish that almost no one he is speaking to believes him — wouldn’t happen with a different person in his time and place. It is not a matter, as Matt Glasby argues in a GQ article subtly titled “Why Forrest Gump is a poisonous film,” of picaresque “wish fulfillment,” but of luck, destiny, floating through history like a feather in the wind. His mother tells Forrest that he’s no different to anyone else, but she’s wrong. He is different, in ways that sometimes make the world seem a harsh and confusing place, and other times, make him a world-class ping-pong player.

Matt Goldberg for Collider argues that Forrest’s chief trait is that he “does as he’s told, and he’s constantly rewarded” — but does he? Nobody told him to hand one of the first Black students to attend the University of Alabama a book that she dropped, and his football coaches weren’t best pleased about it, either. Nobody told him to start a shrimping business. Nobody told him what to say at the peace rally, and though we don’t get to hear his speech, we know it made Abbie Hoffman cry. Forrest says about his heroics in Vietnam that he just did what Jenny told him to do — but she just told him to run, not to run back and forth until he’d rescued half his platoon.

Forrest is a rich, complex character. Though he does have a certain childlike innocence, the impulse to infantilize him reflects deeper-set ableism than any tropes the movie plays on. An episode of “Cracked After Hours” describes Jenny as sexually abusive towards Forrest, equating it with her father’s sexual abuse — the implication being that Forrest cannot understand or consent to sex despite enthusiastically doing so on screen. Kyle Smith equates his mental capacity to a toddler’s. Forrest is a war hero, college graduate, and gazillionaire, but a couple of measly IQ points, and he is automatically filed as incompetent and incapable. Forrest got it right: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

In some ways, it seems like I’ve spent my whole life watching “Forrest Gump” on and off. If I never watched it again, I could probably recite the plot beat for beat on my deathbed. But I will watch it again, and again, because even after all this time, it still takes you by surprise.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

‘Forrest Gump’ Is Actually a Good Movie That Gets Better with Age — Even If Its Visual Effects Don’t (2024)

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