“Run, Forrest, run!;” “that day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run;” “my mama always said life was like a box of chocolates.” The folksy Southern truisms uttered throughout Forrest Gump by a guileless Tom Hanks and an incredible supporting cast are more than mere movie quotables. Rather these are phrases that have seeped into the bedrock of our shared cultural lexicon. You don’t need to have even seen Robert Zemeckis’ 1994 movie to know what someone means if they tell you, “Stupid is as stupid does.”
This is a testament to the staying power of Eric Roth’s screenplay (adapted from Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump novel), and the mythic way Zemeckis realized it onscreen. Yet the fact the movie has lingered in our pop culture subconscious for more than a quarter-century shouldn’t be entirely surprising. For all intents and purposes, Forrest Gump was hailed as an instant masterpiece in 1994 and crowned an Important Movie.
While I was too young to see Forrest Gump in theaters (or even initially on VHS), I do recall the hushed superlatives adults of a certain age spoke of it. And I’m not even talking about my own household. Grown men on the nightly news would get teary-eyed while speaking about how it touched them, emotionally.
Indeed, this was an era when movies targeted at adults—and in the case of Forrest Gump, middle aged ones of a certain sensibility and living memory—could be transformative blockbusters. And outside of Disney’s animated The Lion King, there was no bigger blockbuster that year than Forrest Gump, which earned $330 million in its heyday (about $640 million with inflation). It was a modern classic that had something significant to say about the (white) experience of growing up in the idyllic ‘50s before being thrown into the cultural inferno of the ‘60s and ‘70s. It even was bestowed six Oscars, including when it famously toppled Quentin Tarantino’s groundbreaking Pulp Fiction for Best Picture and Best Director.
How could it not? This was a film about things. Things like the dueling American experience of the “moral majority” via Hanks’ simple yet profoundly wise military veteran with a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and the counterculture that didn’t buy into that system, man, a la Robin Wright Wright as Jenny, the wayward love of Forrest’s life.
Nonetheless, after revisiting the movie for the first time in at least a decade, I would argue its true lasting legacy is as the quintessential landmark in Baby Boomer Cinema. And by that I do not mean as a testament to how that pivotal generation has transformed (and continues to transform) American culture, nor that it is a reflection of the tumultuous times it depicts with rustic good humor. Instead this is a picture-perfect postcard of the way the generation it’s obsessed with saw itself in middle age and at the beginning of a total (and continuing) dominance of the American mainstream… and all the fractures therein that were about to occur.
Forrest and Jenny, the straight arrow and the hippie, are not products of the turbulent times in which they lived, including the during the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the beginning of the women’s liberation movement; they are products of how middle class, suburban values liked to reframe those struggles through rose-tinted glasses.
Nearly 30 years later, a movie so obsessed with navel-gazing at the “Me Generation” plays differently. That same crop of Americans have largely maintained power and wealth, but the threads in one of their seminal fairytale tapestries is starting to look threadbare.
A Thoroughly Decent Man
In his four-star and effusive review of Forrest Gump, Roger Ebert recognized indisputable qualities in the Zemeckis film.
“The screenplay by Eric Roth has the complexity of modern fiction,” wrote Ebert ahead of the movie’s release, “not the formulas of modern movies. Its hero, played by Tom Hanks, is a thoroughly decent man with an IQ of 75, who manages between the 1950s and the 1980s to become involved in every major event in American history. And he survives them all with only honesty and niceness as his shields.”
There is much truth in this. One of the outstanding qualities of Forrest Gump as a narrative is how it bucks traditional three-act Hollywood structure, even as it leans into what was then a reigning embrace of highly orchestrated sentimentality. Here was a movie that not so much began and ended, but offered a novelistic series of events as perceived from the vantage of a person with an intellectual disability… as well as an innate understanding of his fellow man.
The movie is as sweet as Gump’s first line about boxes and chocolates, but unlike a lot of the feel-good movies of its era, Zemeckis’ picture brings some of the same sly playfulness and wry sense of humor that made spending time with the inhabitants of Hill Valley so appealing across three movies and a hundred years of history in the Back to the Future trilogy.
In this way, Forrest Gump frames its romanticization of halcyon days where parents would shield your eyes from Elvis Presley shaking those hips, or later when “Camelot” was stuck on repeat in the Kennedy White House, with a sardonic quality that both makes its story sillier and more substantial. At heart, this is a bit of modern American mythmaking in the Mark Twain and transcendentalist tradition. In this yarn, if a man decides he’ll leave his home and run across the country for three years, two months, 14 days, and 16 hours, well by golly that’s just what he’ll do—as well as unintentionally poke fun at the latest fads and vanities when fellow thirtysomethings desperate to “figure it out” race breathlessly behind him.
It’s as American as apple pie, and just as comforting as it looks back on times of recent hardship with the satisfaction of knowing that lessons were learned and final victories won.
“This is not a heartwarming story about a mentally retarded man,” Ebert also wrote 28 years ago. “That cubbyhole is much too small and limiting for Forrest Gump. The movie is more a meditation on our times, as seen through the eyes of a man who lacks cynicism and takes things for exactly what they are.”
I would disagree. The problem, which has only grown more apparent in the years since its release, is that Forrest Gump doesn’t truly take things as they were, be that in the past or the then-now of 1994. To put it another way, the great American storyteller William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The sense of satisfaction that permeates throughout Forrest Gump suggests otherwise, however. Which becomes grating with each rewatch.
When It’s Too Soon to Say “Happily Ever After”
One of the things that most knocked out audiences when Forrest Gump opened in theaters was its use of what was then still novel digital technology to insert Tom Hanks’ good-natured Forrest into select black and white or grainy 16mm color newsreel footage. Never before had eyes been challenged by what the kids of today would call “deep fakes” on TikTok. So beyond a brief flicker where the lips of a former world leader are manipulated, it really looks like Hanks is standing next to President John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and, in the most humorous sequence, President Richard M. Nixon, the latter of whom unwisely suggests Gump spend the next few nights at the Watergate Hotel.
The proverbial Hall of Presidents sequences are all amusing, and the way that leaders, who were once more mythologized in an everyday life that existed without the internet and 24-hour cable news cycles, were suddenly resurrected from the dead remains a clever trick.
Less amusing, at least for myself, is the way this trick is first played by amiably inserting Gump behind the infamous bigot, Alabama Governor George Wallace, as he screeched from the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963, swearing he would never let Black students integrate into the state’s public university. Earlier that year, Wallace was inaugurated as governor by declaring, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
The scene in Forrest Gump, of course, is meant to mock Wallace as a fool. It’s a sequence designed to showcase Gump’s bafflement by and total incomprehension of racism. Forrest is simple, but Wallace is stupid. It also narratively places Gump in the real and fraught racial divisions of the 1960s, particularly as a Southern white man who, again without him comprehending the implications, is named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Confronting with clear eyes those thorny and painful aspects of Southern, and American, history is necessary.
Yet it doesn’t actually feel like Forrest Gump is sincerely attempting that. Rather it is clouding the past with a sense of moral superiority from the present. Things are so much better now that we’ve solved racism. Forrest, meanwhile, has a more contemporary 1990s point-of-view where he implies the then-popular talking point of “I don’t see race.” When he meets Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise) in Vietnam, his C.O. cracks a joke about Forrest and his buddy, an intellectually disabled Black man named Bubba (Mykelti Williamson), sounding like brothers.
“No, we are not relations, sir,” a puzzled Forrest responds much to Lt. Dan, and presumably the audience’s, chagrin and laughter.
The film’s sense of good-natured humor about these interpersonal interactions suggests that, firstly, racism is a problem with individuals and not also systems, and secondly that these events happened in a remembered yet distant past. In this way, whether intentional or not, the movie contributed to the growing narrative within mainstream media in the 1990s that these were distant problems—a subject for a historical period piece rather than the here and now.
It downplays the racial tensions of the era the movie is set in while suggesting those same issues are over, even as this very film includes no major Black characters of importance in Forrest’s Southern life other than Bubba, whom he meets in the Army and who then dies in Forrest’s arms before they can get back to the U.S.
Afterward, Forrest seeks out Bubba’s mother, who like her son is played as a broad stereotype, and who like every other Black character in the film not named Bubba, has less than three lines of dialogue. But then there isn’t time. The movie needs to use as much time as it can to recount disarming tall tales like how Elvis got the idea to do his hip-shaking from watching Forrest as a child walk in braces (as opposed to the reality, which was he appropriated the dance from Black Southern church communities he attended and abandoned).
Forrest Gump is a movie that trivializes the past, packaging it in a sweet box of chocolates filled with 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s earworms that span the spectrum from Simon & Garfunkel to Jimi Hendrix and the Byrds (the latter two of whom were both covering Bob Dylan songs). However, it robs much of that music of its actual subversive and sometimes even transgressive intent.
A Culture War Won
The above might be why the central thesis of the movie, the love story between Forrest and Jenny, rings a bit hollow. As the story about two outsiders who are disadvantaged at birth because of their disabilities or hellish home life, it’s an effective romance between kindred spirits if not true lovers.
But within the larger mythological context the movie operates in, wherein one is the Vietnam War hero and the other the flower child who’s come to D.C. to protest “those baby killers,” it leaves me wanting, especially as they jump across the Reflecting Pool to hug.
This is not a love story about a meeting of the minds, or a discovered sense of commonality between the far left and right during those agonizing years. It’s a parable about conventional values where the all-American straight arrow who’s too square to be part of Jenny’s scene is the one who ends up befriending three presidents and getting rich by investing in Apple Computer stock (which only happens after he steals his dead Black friend’s idea for starting a shrimping business and then shares its greatest wealth with Lt. Dan). Conversely, Jenny spends her whole life unhappy and is then punished for chasing the California Dreamin’ ideal by getting AIDS in the ‘80s and dying. She lives long enough to bear Forrest a son, and her purpose served, is extinguished.
Considering Hanks starred in and won an Oscar only a year before this for the also dated, but still richly rewarding and nuanced, Philadelphia, it feels odd to see him in a film with such a regressive point-of-view.
Of course at the time Forrest Gump wasn’t meant to be regressive. It was a celebration of a past its target audience all went through, with all that great music, and all those unfathomable sorrows and pointless assassinations, now revisited with a sweet, life-affirming touch. What does the character of Forrest Gump actually have to say about those times? We don’t know. At the anti-war protest Forrest accidentally wanders into, he’s asked what the Vietnam War meant for him. He begins to offer a long and thoughtful answer. Unfortunately though, at that very moment another disgruntled military man disconnects Forrest’s microphone so no one, including the audience, can hear what he has to say.
The sequence is meant to make fun of both sides, the censorious, anti-free speech “silent majority,” as well as the overzealous and self-righteous far-left who think silence is like a deep answer, man. But was Forrest glad he went to Vietnam? Was he horrified by Vietnam? It’s up to each viewer, and presumably their own political persuasion, to fill in Forrest’s dialogue bubble. Besides, the past is the past. Can’t we just hug it out with Jenny in the pool?
But alas, the past is never past. Recent tragic events have caused Americans to reexamine how far we still remain from racial equality, and even hard-won victories from Forrest and Jenny’s day have turned out to be ephemeral. After all, it is one of their contemporaries, Baby Boomer and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who penned the leaked U.S. Supreme Court decision that appears prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade and, thereby, allow men once again to command potentially up to penalty of death what women can do with their own bodies. And on the notion of the past never being past, Alito cited “common law” from an English judge who hanged women for witchcraft in the 17th century as legal precedent for his logic.
Forrest Gump is a feel-good movie that truly feels good when viewed uncritically. But its sunny disposition obscures a frightening lack of self-awareness for the decades it remembers, as well as the culture it seems to be celebrating.
It’s a flawed and faded fairytale. And yet, I also find it to be a fascinating time capsule—not of the eras it romanticizes and trivializes, but for how a significant portion of white, privileged Americans liked to see themselves at the crossroads of middle age and the beginning peak of their cultural domination. For a moment there, it appeared like there were no downsides yet to come.