Friday, January 11, 2013



The Academy's choice for best film of 1994 marked one of the few times that the Academy agreed with the American public, giving the best picture award to Robert Zemeckis's oddball comedy drama FORREST GUMP, which was also the number one movie at the box office that year; the first time that the moviegoing public and the Academy agreed since 1979's KRAMER VS. KRAMER.  But the film's enormous success brought an inevitable backlash, with many criticizing its length and sappy tone.  It really seems to divide people between those for who find its story moving and those who walk out shaking their heads wondering what all the fuss was about.  Personally, I tend to fall into the latter group; I think Zemekis's movie is nice looking and mostly well acted, but its too long, its often feels pointless, and when it does have a point, it makes it through sledgehammer sentiment.  

The film began as a novel of the same name published in 1986.  Producer Wendy Finerman thought there was a movie in it, but it took many attempts by different writers before Eric Roth finally wrote a script she felt was worthy of the novel.  Director  Robert Zemeckis, a protege of Stephen Spielberg, was slated to direct; at first this may have seemed like an odd choice because he was known for special effect movies like BACK TO THE FUTURE and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, but it proved  wise in that the experience he had using effects that showed interactions between humans and cartoons in the latter film would aid him in the scenes where Tom Hanks is blended in seamlessly with real archival footage of famous people in Forrest Gump.  Actors like Bill Murray and John Travolta were considered for the lead role before it went to Tom Hanks, hot off of winning an Oscar for best actor in 1993's PHILIDELPHIA.  The film was mostly shot in South Carolina (even the Viet Nam war scenes), and came in with a budget of around $55 million; it opened relatively slowly, and then built to an enormous hit, eventually making over $300 million dollars in the US alone.
Set in Alabama, the film tells the life story, mostly in flashback, of the dim witted Forrest Gump; born in the 1940's, Forrest's amazing life story includes fighting in Viet Nam, playing ping pong in China, and meeting famous people like John Kennedy and Elvis Presley.  All the while he pines for childhood friend Jenny(Robin Wright), who seems to appear and disappear from his life, until she finally marries him before dying of AIDS, leaving him alone with their son.

Tom Hanks

This is a film that is not subtle about going for big emotions almost from the start: from the heavy handed metaphor of a floating leaf landing on Forrest at the film's beginning to the painfully corny soundtrack by Alan Silvestri  (thankfully, the score is mostly thrown out when the film switches to Viet Nam, with classic rock songs taking its place, although even those are painfully obvious choices),  to Forrest's constant quoting of  little"pearls of wisdom" that he learned from his mother,  that sound like greeting card messages, not to mention  the fact that Forrest has two separate scenes in which he stands by a loved one's grave and tearfully talks to them.  The real make or break scene for the film, the one that judges just how much you'll enjoy the film, comes early on when Forrest, while he's still a child, is chased by some bullies on bikes.  Forced to wear metal leg braces because of a spinal condition, he suddenly breaks free of the braces and runs with almost super speed.  Forrest himself calls this a miracle, and whether or not you can believe such a thing happening will determine your feelings about the film.  To me the scene is absurd and laughable, and, while I find some other elements of the film successful, (the battle scene in Viet Nam is genuinely harrowing) my inability to be emotionally involved in a story where such miracles can occur hurts my overall enjoyment of the film.   To be fair, the fact that the film was so popular, with many viewers paying to see it more than once, meant that a significant part of the audience were indeed moved by the story and its characters, even if it mostly left me cold.
Tom Hanks, like classic movie stars Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, is an immediately endearing screen presence, one that an audience warms to and who can carry a film with ease.   Hanks won his first Oscar nomination when he played a 12 year old boy who magically ages into an adult in Penny Marshall's charming 1988 film BIG, and really, he seems to be playing the same lovable, naive  man child here, albiet one with a Southern accent.    However, in this film, Hanks's lovability is pushed to the limit, as his almost perfect character becomes an often maudlin figure.  Since the whole point of the Forrest character is that he never really changes, Hanks's performance hits the same note again and again. He seems to have only two reactions to what's going on: he gazes forward, dumbfounded, or  he does something impulsive and childlike.   Still, it's not a bad performance, in that Forrest is mostly engaging throughout, it's just that it feels that Hanks is limited by the character as he's written.  He did win a second best actor award for his performance, so obviously it has its fans. As for that Southern accent he uses, the story goes that Hanks based it on the real speaking voice of Michael Humphries, the child actor who plays the young Forrest; honestly,  I find it's odd cadences and monotone distracting and sometimes annoying, although I suppose it's authentic to the region and true to the character's limited intellect.

Gary Sinese

While I think Robin Wright as Jenny and Sally Field as Forrest's mother both give fine performances (Field doing what she could with an often dull, saintly character), my favorite performance in the film is given by Gary Sinese as the bitter handicapped war veteran LT Dan.  His cynical nature and anger help to cut through the rest of the film's treacle, and he and Hanks have  good chemistry.  In what may be the film's most effective moment, the enraged Dan tells Forrest that it was wrong for Forrest to have saved him after his legs were blown off.  The intensity of Sinese here is impressive, and he maintains it in many of his later scenes, only giving in to the film's sappiness towards the end.

One of the film's big flaws comes in its use of voice over narration; using such a technique is often a tricky one for films.  While great movies as diverse as DOUBLE INDEMNITY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and GOOD FELLAS all use character narration, it can be a way for lazy screenwriters to simply tell the audience what they're watching or underline themes in an obvious way.  FORREST GUMP falls into both of those traps, with Forrest's almost constant narration spoon feeding emotion and exposition to the audience in a patronizing way, and again, I'm not a big fan of Hanks's accent.  I also don't enjoy the portion of the film in which Forrest decides to start running "for no particular reason", eventually running for so long that he gathers followers that join him (he grows a beard like Jesus, because, like I said, this is not a subtle film).  After a couple of mildly amusing jokes about how Forrest inadvertently gave good ideas to two of his followers, the sequence just peters out without any kind of climax: Forrest just decides to stop running and that's that.  In a film that runs well over two hours, why this pointless interlude did not wind up on the cutting room floor makes no sense to me.

 One of the keys to the film's huge box office success is that is was carefully written to avoid any specific politicizing in its historical overview; Forrest Gump, both the movie and the character, is a blank slate for the audience to write their own feelings on, so both conservatives and liberals can find something to like.  For example, when Forrest goes off to fight in Viet Nam, he accepts it without ever wondering about the rightness or wrongness of the war.  And when he becomes a war hero, he does it only by saving other soldiers and never fires a single shot; in other words, he's the kind of war hero that even the biggest anti war protestor can admire.
While the film's meaning is open to interpretation, I feel that it contrasts the lives of Forrest and Jenny to make its points: Forrest is always the same, from adulthood to childhood, Jenny is always trying something new, from folk singing to disco dancing.  Forrest is always lucky, good things happen to him almost by chance, Jenny is never lucky, and leads a sad life from childhood abuse by her father to an early death from AIDS.  The moral of the story seems to be that we should all be like Forrest; that we should never change, always do what our mother's tell us, and just accept whatever hand life deals us without complaint, trusting that God (the movie is quite religious) will guide us to our ultimate destiny.  The fact  that Forrest is not only lucky, but kind, brave and charitable, rams the point home.  Personally, I find this message troubling to say the least; while I'm open to the assertion that kindness is a greater virtue than intelligence, I still believe that it's important to do more than trust fate, and that analysis of one's life and the choices made in it are essential to a "full life".  Still, I will give the film credit for raising these issues in a thought provoking way, even when those issues are wrapped in a maudlin package like this film.


My mixed feelings about this movie are obvious, and, despite its huge popularity,  I don't think it was the best film of that year, not when fine films like Tim Burton's ED WOOD, Robert  Redford's QUIZ SHOW,  and Frank Darabont's SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION were all released.  Not to mention my personal favorite film of the year, Quentin Tarantino's violent, profane and wildly entertaining PULP FICTION, which I believe has proven to be a far more influential film than the overrated GUMP.