Robert Zemeckis’ 1994 dramatic epic Forrest Gump tells the tale of the eponymous character, a mentally challenged man who recounts his life experiencing some of the most interesting times in American history – the Vietnam war, the Red Scare, the hippie movement, Reagan-era America – blithely unaware of the importance of the events that he experienced. In this way, Forrest’s lack of awareness or incuriousness is reflected in the attitudes of the film; in many ways, Forrest Gump feels like a pastiche of the ‘greatest hits’ in American history, without really exploring them in depth. In this way, Forrest Gump is an intellectually dishonest film, as it goes through a checklist of major American events that define its baby-boomer audience, feeling only the need to elicit entertainment and laughter through recognition of those events.
Forrest Gump is the ideal agent of this filmic philosophy, because he always does precisely what he is told with complete drive (and surprising skill). When his drill sergeant asks Forrest what he thinks, Forrest yells, “Whatever you tell me to think, sir!” To the sergeant, Forrest is a “fucking genius.” The film’s philosophy takes the typical route that many of these films with a mentally challenged lead character does: the retarded man has a simpler, more innocent, and therefore inherently more valuable take on life than those with all of their mental faculties (Lyal, 1994). The influence of chance on many of his actions and successes in the film helps to cement this philosophy – he becomes rich and successful because of lucky chances, influences major cultural and social changes (Watergate, the smiley-face) by happenstance and lucky accident, and survives horrors like Vietnam by being good at running and being uniquely lucky in his ineptitude. His naivete and dumbness serves as a signifier for luck, and the film treats his running skills as a sort of superpower that he gained at the expense of his intelligence.
In many ways, Forrest Gump takes an extremely conservative view of the events depicted in it; the hippie counterculture is treated as a quaint gag, and many of their traditions and major events are viewed as silly. Because the film values dumbness as a vehicle for simplicity (and therefore greater truth), Forrest reacts to hippies as the film does; with quiet misunderstanding and confusion. Groups like the Black Panthers are encountered and dealt with while not dealing with any of the political heat behind them; the Panthers, for example, are only seen as brutes that try to take advantage of Jenny. The hippie counterculture is seen to change Jenny for the worse, turning her into a junkie who eventually gets AIDS (Byers, 1996). Therefore, it is up to noble, simple Forrest to ‘save’ her from these politically progressive movements, and by the end of the film at least allow her to go out as a woman with a husband and a family, thus reinforcing the status quo and negating the kind of person she really was while she was alive.
The film’s conservative viewpoint also extends to Forrest’s best friend, Lieutenant Dan. While the film plays on the surface with Lieutenant Dan’s overly jingoistic view of warfare, the Vietnam scenes are still played out as noble, and Forrest becomes a war hero (carrying wounded to safety) through simple luck and dumb decisions. The film gives the impression that, if only this fictional character were actually in Vietnam, things would have gone a lot better for America. The use of these American myths, and seeing Forrest have such an easy time through all of these hardships, is an indicator by the filmmakers that being ‘simple’ and not worrying about the politics of one’s actions, etc., is what will get us through (Wang, 2000).
The montage, late in the film, where Forrest runs across the country, is a bit of a microcosm for the rest of the film’s philosophy as a whole. In the real world, people have performed amazing deeds for a number of causes, either drawing attention to them or raising money for them. People then gather around to celebrate the person doing this deed for the sake of a noble cause, as they are sacrificing themselves for an issue they care deeply about. Forrest, on the other hand, only does it because he felt like it; he does not know what else to do. While this is still a laudable goal, the following that he receives – including national news attention – feels as though America celebrates his total absence of political or social motivation, lauding what is essentially inaction. He stands for nothing and does not get in the way, simply observing America and its changes from a discreet distance. This is Forrest Gump’s philosophy in a nutshell: it is cold, cynical, and sugarcoats major and traumatic historical events like Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and the onset of AIDS.
Byers, Thomas. “History Re-membered: Forrest Gump, Postfeminist Masculinity and the Burial of the Counterculture.” Modern Fiction Studies 42.2: 419-444. Summer 1996. Print.
Lyall, Sarah. “It’s ‘Forrest Gump’ vs. Harrumph.” New York Times, July 31, 1994. Print.
Wang, Jennifer H. “‘A Struggle of Contending Stories'”: Race, Gender and Political Memory in Forrest Gump.” Cinema Journal 39.3: 92-115. Print.
Zemeckis, Robert (dir.) Forrest Gump. Perf. Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise. Paramount Pictures, 1994. Film.