Forrest Gump is a brilliantly crafted, finely acted movie that is witty, inventive, and stirring. It is also a movie that obscures, in a gauze of sentiment, a promotion of fatalism over agency, private pleasure over public commitment, and a diversity of stereotypes over a respect for diversity. In short, Forrest Gump is both seductive and reactionary.
The movie captivates, in part, because it is relentlessly clever in the way it inserts Forrest Gump into actual footage of past events. He witnesses the desegregation of the University of Alabama; he is honored by three former presidents; he meets Elvis Presley and John Lennon. This fictional presence, represented so naturalistically in actual events, disrupts the viewer’s sense of the past as truly finished and real. This sense is further ruptured by the way the film at times playfully attributes a sort of historical agency to Gump. He, however, doesn’t have a clue that he taught Elvis Presley how to gyrate and that he discovered the Watergate burglary.
More than a crafty exercise in celluloid magic, the movie is inexhaustibly affecting. It constantly works on the emotions by creating an identification with Gump, who is the film’s narrator as well as leading character. I know I have always been a pushover for characters in film and in fiction who were depicted as intellectually slow. In their inarticulateness I saw my own limited capacity to name the world, and in their innocence I felt a nostalgia for seeing the world in pastel colors. Forrest Gump is innocent, and he is also inarticulate, despite his store of dull aphorisms meant to pass as wisdom like “stupid is as stupid does” and “life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.” He is more than these qualities, however. Unprejudiced, loyal, and brave, he lives in harmony with nature and is at peace with himself. He is a pre-modern figure, all intuition and affect, in a post-modern landscape, a reason-defying jumble of often violent events spawned by a faith in rationality.
There is a message here: if we could only be more like Gump, we could all put on a happy face and “have a nice day,” the logo and phrase Gump is made to inadvertently create. The problem is that Gump is impossibly simple. Only if we are seduced into seeing the world through Gump-colored glasses would we fail to see that he is a parody of an individual with a learning problem. Being a bit slow does not render one totally devoid of complexity, as Gump is. Nor does it make one “a running fool,” as a townsperson rightly labels Gump. Here is a person who scores a touchdown and keeps running, mowing down the band in the process; who takes a running leap off his moving boat, leaving it unattended; who runs across the entire country several times because he “just felt like running.”
If Gump is a running fool, his best friend Bubba is talking fool whose only topic of conversation is shrimp. The two are equally stupid, and at one point, in fact, they are asked if they are twins. This is funny because Gump is white and Bubba is African-American. But it is not so funny that Bubba’s only purpose in the movie, whether alive or dead (for he is killed off in a typical cinematic fate for major Black characters), is to highlight Gump’s noble qualities.
Bubba, on the other hand, has no discernible qualities. The movie encourages us to applaud Gump’s non-racist behavior and over look the racist scenario that displays it.
In another racist (as well as chauvinistic) scenario, scenes from the war in Vietnam are depicted without including a single Vietnamese person. Since the Vietnamese don’t seem to inhabit their own country, the viewer is led to sympathize solely with the American invaders who, with incredible cinematic gall, are the ones endangered by napalm bombs.
Gender issues receive unenlightened treatment as well. Like Bubba, the leading female character is a virtual cipher meant to showcase Gump. Jenny’s own inconstancy and presumably wayward life choices show off Gump’s non-judgmental, steadfast love. That there is no basis for this love is obscured by Gump’s doting attention and his repeated comment that Jenny and he go together like “peas and carrots.” Although Gump says this convincingly, it is ultimately as inane as it is homely — and so is Gump’s love. It is not forged out of a dynamic, sometimes conflictual relationship between complex human beings. Rather, it is an uncritical, puppy-dog sort of love that we may long for in our weaker moments, but that infantalizes both the subject and the recipient.
More importantly, the viewer is guided to take a dim view of Jenny’s failure to settle down with Gump in their rural Alabama home town. Jenny has gone astray by leaving Gump for the political activism and counter-cultural lifestyle of the 1960s and the 1970s. What motivates her decisions is not at all clear since she too is rendered essentially inarticulate. The movie suggests, however, that what drives her is not political commitment, but flight from her stereotypically drunken, incestuous, poor-white-trash father. At any rate, we find out that her choices are bad ones. She gets slapped around by an unsavory Berkeley radical, while a ranting, equally unsavory Black Panther member looks on; she gets caught up in drug abuse; she gets AIDS; she dies. Her lack of family values proves fatal.
In this movie, women’s place is in the home, and, more broadly, the private domain is the only proper realm for human activity. Gump’s accumulation of wealth demonstrates that neither capital nor brains are required for success in an ever-friendly marketplace. In contrast, the history of politics is reduced to an irrational succession of assassinations and assassination attempts, and a protest movement that is nonsensical. Through Gump’s eyes a massive anti-war demonstration in Washington has convened merely to cheer the speakers’ use of four-letter words, and the Black Panthers have come together to have a “party.” In Gump’s view of history there are no inequities to be redressed, no issues to be struggled over, no contests with outcomes that affect private life, and no possibility for collective action to consciously shape the course of events.
This is a movie that pulls out all the stops to make the viewer gaze at the world the way Gump does. It is a gaze of wonder and innocence but also of incomprehension.
Finding history and politics meaningless, the outlook elevates private life over public commitment and assumes that private destiny can be played out without touching or being touched by the broader society. If we can extricate ourselves from the sentiment that glues us to Gump, it becomes clear that this film is indeed a tale told by an idiot.
The movie can then remind us that we are thinking as well as feeling beings who are both made by and makers of history. Our challenge is not to create refuges of mindless bliss, but to understand and act on the world to create a more humane legacy for those who will follow us.