June 19, 2024

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #71: Forrest Gump

Tom Hanks, in what may be his most iconic role, lives an interesting life as a simple man.

Watson is of the opinion that Steven Spielberg is, if not the greatest director of all time, at least the greatest working today.  As a thought experiment, I asked the other Geeks who Spielberg’s successor would be.  Watson and I both chose Christopher Nolan, but Ryan went with an interesting choice in Robert Zemeckis.  Zemeckis has some good movies under his belt, but few he’s made recently really stand out, so I’m not sure I can agree with Ryan’s assessment.

But on the strength of Forrest Gump alone, there’s a hell of a case to be made for that choice.

Before we go too far, I’ve spilled plenty of digital ink on Forrest Gump in the past.  The bottom line is I think it’s a good movie, but not a great one.  It beat out what I consider two much better movies for Best Picture in 1994 in the form of Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption.  I don’t hate Forrest Gump.  It’s a well-made movie.  The acting in it is fine.  The direction and script works.  The Greatest Hits soundtrack is OK.  It’s a charming little movie.  I’ve seen it a few times, but truth be told, I’d be fine if I never saw it again.

Oddly enough, I feel the same way about Zemeckis’ Back to the Future as well.  Fine movie.  Nothing wrong with it.  It would not bother me if I never saw it again.

But let’s talk some Gump, a textbook case of how to make a good movie based off a book that isn’t all that faithful to the book it’s based on.  Author Winston Groom hates the movie for that reason…and also because he says they never really paid him what he was promised.  I have read the novel.  It’s short, fairly weird, and has a whole lot of scenes that were never filmed, like Forrest’s careers as an astronaut, pro wrestler, or monster movie actor, to say nothing about his pal the orangutan.  All that is probably for the best.

But as I said, this is a good movie, and I’ll admit I even teared up a little watching Bubba die again.

The Bubba material, for the most part, is faithful to the novel.  The only real difference is Forrest met Bubba in college, not the Army, and the two played football together before going to Vietnam.

That aside, there’s a lot to like about Forrest Gump the person if not Forrest Gump the movie.  Tom Hanks plays the character perfectly.  He could have easily been a cartoon character, but instead Forrest has a real heart.  He’s a sweet man with a simple outlook on life.  He’s actually more self-aware than he looks, as seen when he asks if his son Forrest Jr is smart or not.  But the thing that stands out most about Forrest is he’s about the luckiest guy there is.  Much of the good fortune that befalls Forrest happens through dumb luck.  Forrest is a man who just lets things happen.  A nearly virginal man (he only has sex once in his entire life from the looks of things), Forrest approaches life like a child, but never in a childish manner.  He’s wealthy, but is content to just mow the lawn at his old high school.  In the hands of another actor, Forrest would have been more caricature than character.  Hanks plays the role just right and he earned that Best Actor Oscar for the character.

But there’s something about Forrest Gump that I keep circling back to, and it’s the thing that makes me enjoy the movie a little less.  Despite Hanks, some groundbreaking special effects to insert the characters into old news footage and remove Lt. Dan’s legs, despite the way the characters are so vivid that for people who know this movie, the names of Mama, Jenny, Lt. Dan, and Bubba all resonate in ways characters in other movies don’t, for me, Forrest Gump is all about being a Baby Boomer.  And as a member of the forgotten generation, Generation X, much of what I see if about how awesome it was to be a Boomer.  Everything that is cool and awesome about being a Baby Boomer happens to Forrest.  The worst he endures is his Vietnam experiences, and even then he gets off rather lucky compared to many (like Bubba and Lt. Dan).  He invents slogans, meets famous people, and becomes a multi-millionaire.  His life is a simple joy, where even as an adult he still carries a Curious George book his mama read to him alongside a lot of other things he carries for strictly sentimental reasons.  That Fortune magazine isn’t in his suitcase for any other reason than to show people what Lt. Dan looks like.

But then there’s Jenny.

Actress Robin Wright holds her own in this movie right alongside Hanks, and in what may be the tougher role, but it always struck me that if everything awesome about being a Boomer happened accidentally to Forrest, then everything bad about being a Boomer happened to Jenny, with her abusive boyfriends, drug problems, and finally dying of what is hinted very strongly to be AIDS, and all tracing itself back to a sexually abusive father.  Jenny wants to actually make something of herself.  She has dreams and ambitions.  Does she achieve any of them?  No.  Can it be she is being punished for actually having sex, unlike Forrest who is rewarded beyond his heart’s desires while remaining largely abstinent?

Maybe.  That’s another deviation from the book.  Book-Forrest has a lot of sex, mostly with Jenny, who survives to the end, as does Forrest’s Mama.

So, really, between the Jenny-stuff and some rather on-the-nose symbolism (like how Lt. Dan is “healed” at the end, as demonstrated by the fact he is walking again and his fiance may even be Vietnamese), there’s still a lot to like or even love about Forrest Gump.  It’s good, not great.

Unless you’re Jimmy Impossible.  That anti-American Canadian hates this movie.

NEXT UP:  Here’s another one that barely missed my Top 25 movie list, namely the 1971 true crime story about tough cops in a tough city, The French Connection.