The popular take on Forrest Gump goes something like this: It’s a heartwarming tearjerker about a guy whose big heart more than makes up for his low IQ. It’s also a story of how success has a way of finding the good and bypassing the sinful.
That’s a superficial reading of the Robert Zemeckis film, though. Forrest Gump has layers and nuances and ironies, and it’s far bleaker than it is given credit for. Just because a movie is a monster hit doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. No less an authority than Quentin Tarantino admired it as black comedy even as the tastemakers were appalled that Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction lost the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars to Forrest Gump.
Forrest Gump, which is observing its 25th anniversary (July 8) both with a return to theaters nationwide on the night of June 25 and with a remastered Blu-Ray edition, reminds us that the meaning of films alters with age. What was most noteworthy about it in 1994 (the special effects inserting Tom Hanks’s Gump into historical footage) is today unremarkable, something any kid could do with a smartphone. Yet in 1994, when Baby Boomer culture was simply the culture, the generational specificity of the film didn’t stand out. Today the film looks something like the quintessential Baby Boomer epic, a portrait of a peculiarly restless and conflicted generation.
An inch beneath the maudlin surface, Forrest Gump seems unabashedly conservative in the moral contest it stages between two archetypes. Gump, who willingly goes off to fight in Vietnam, becomes a war hero. He keeps his hair short, eschews hedonism, and works hard, making it big as an entrepreneur and investor (he is among the first to invest in “some kind of fruit company” — Apple). He becomes a beloved figure in his community, which he strengthens with his philanthropy. His lifelong love, Jenny (Robin Wright), grows up to be a flower child, topless performer, radical anti-war activist, slut, and apparent heroin addict. She dies of AIDS in 1982. Squares 1, hippies 0. Pat Buchanan hailed Gump as a conservative hero. In 2009 NR called Forrest Gump the fourth-best conservative movie of the preceding 25 years. For once, liberals were the ones scrambling to salvage something politically congenial from a leading cultural signifier: Roger Ebert wrote, of the final scenes with Jenny and Forrest living together, that “the accommodation they arrive at in the end is like a dream of reconciliation for our society.” It’s more like the hippies’ final surrender; Jenny has turned completely away from the counterculture and become a waitress with a sensible hairdo worthy of a mother on a sitcom.
Yet beneath the film’s takedown of flower power there is an irony: Gump isn’t really an avatar of patriotism, hard work, and clean living because he isn’t bright enough to make informed choices. His success is flat-out dumb luck. He strikes it rich not because he’s particularly good at shrimping but because, by chance, his is the only shrimp boat to survive a storm. The Apple shares fall into his lap. He isn’t even really a war hero; he is seen willingly traipsing into Viet Cong hidey-holes because he’s too dumb to know they’re dangerous, and when he rescues several men under fire, he isn’t aware of what the stakes are. When he gets shot in the butt, he thinks he’s been bitten by an animal. You can’t display courage under fire if you don’t understand fire in the first place, and Gump, who is mentally on the level of a toddler, shouldn’t even have been allowed to put on the uniform.
There is satiric bite to Eric Roth’s screenplay, based on Winston Groom’s novel. The implication is that, whether we’re talking about war heroes or entrepreneurs, luck plays a bigger role in life than we like to acknowledge. The subtext of this seemingly conservative movie is as anti-conservative as an Elizabeth Warren speech: Don’t be too proud; you just got lucky. Life isn’t a meritocracy; it’s a crapshoot. Being pure of heart has nothing to do with Gump’s success unless you think God went out of his way to help him by trashing all of his competitors’ shrimp boats. (The storm follows Gump’s prayers for shrimp.)
But if God favors Gump, why does He play such a sick lifelong joke on him? Gump would have been happier with 99 percent fewer shrimp and a bit more Jenny. What makes the film poignant as a parable is that, though Gump is decorated by presidents and makes the cover of Fortune magazine, in this man’s life material success is not only overrated, as many Baby Boomers came to think; it actually doesn’t matter at all. Gump doesn’t know what to do with his money, so he gives it away and continues to live as usual in his mom’s house. By his own standards he is an almost total failure. Jenny is all that matters to him. But she remains out of reach until the last months of her life, when she presents him with their son (played by five-year-old Haley Joel Osment in his film debut).
The bookend images of the feather on the wind sum up the film’s vision: We’re all playthings of chance. Pray for shrimp if you want, but it’s a matter of luck whose boat survives the storm. That the script contains one of the wickedest sendups of gurus since Life of Brian underlines its irreverence: When Gump mindlessly starts running across the country, a retinue of disciples forms behind him seeking enlightenment, but he has none to offer. He’s just an idiot who felt like running. In its wickedest moment, the movie even spoofs the Shroud of Turin: While running, Gump wipes mud off his face with a cloth, and the pattern it leaves is like a photo negative of a smiley face, which turns out to be a million-dollar idea for a T-shirt. Any Christian reading of Forrest Gump must confront the cynicism of this scene.
For a supposedly saccharine Baby Boomer movie, Forrest Gump has a snarky millennial edge: It practically says, “LOL nothing matters.” We stumble through our lives so dumb, we might as well be guessing which items in that famous box of chocolates might be tasty. That’s pretty dark. Forrest Gump is dark enough to please a Pulp Fiction fan, as indeed it pleased Pulp Fiction’s creator.