Movie Review: "Forrest Gump"--ReFocus

5/11/2010 Posted by Admin

Movie Review: Refocus

"Forrest Gump"

By our guest blogger, John Shannon


Editor's note: With new movies coming out every Friday, new DVDs every Tuesday, and nearly a hundred years worth of film history to draw from, it’s easy for some titles to get lost in the shuffle. “ReFocus” is a weekly column detailing a film that for one reason or another deserves revisiting. Whether it’s simply providing further context or taking a second look at a misplaced classic, we’re here to continue the conversation and give films their proper view.

This week…

"Forrest Gump"

Up until now, ReFocus has been a column that aims to highlight misplaced or forgotten films that deserve more recognition. But if you look at our mission statement, we claim to revisit films for “one reason or another.” In the case of “Forrest Gump,” the reason is definitely “another.”

Directed by Robert Zemeckis in 1994, “Forrest Gump” is probably one of the most popular films of the past 20 years. Winning multiple Oscars and solidifying Tom Hanks as one of the premier actors of his generation, one only needs to say the word “Gump” and we instantly can see Forrest in his gray suit and blue plaid shirt, sitting on a park bench and offering some old lady a selection from his box of chocolates.

Why then, you may ask, do I feel the need to revisit this beloved film?

Well, the answer is that I believe “Forrest Gump” shouldn’t be beloved. Instead, quite frankly, the film should be loathed. While it uses major American symbols and situations from the past 50 years as a backdrop in order to elicit a nostalgic response from the baby boomer crowd, it also employs these symbols and situations to mask a central theme that is, frankly, un-American.

I’m sure plenty of you are opening your e-mail accounts to write me some hate mail, or quickly forming a remark decrying my foolishness below within the comments section. And I get it. “Forrest Gump” is one of those movies that the whole family can watch and enjoy. Networks like TNT and TBS play it at least once a week, and more so during holiday seasons. “Gump is a symbol of the American dream, the ability to come from nothing, that any man, regardless of his background, can make his dream comes true!” You may cry.

I respectfully argue that that isn’t the case.

To illustrate my point, let us take a look at the four major figures in Forrest’s life before looking at the title character. These people are Mama, Lt. Dan, Bubba, and, of course, Jenny.

Forrest’s Mama is a woman who comes from a wealthy family and clearly wished for more out of her life. Her husband leaves when Forrest is revealed to have special needs and she is forced to rent out the many rooms of her Southern estate in order to make ends meet. Mrs. Gump envisioned her life as a continuation of the southern tradition, but instead is reduced to sleeping with the elementary school principal in order for Forrest to attend public school. She insists that Forrest is the same as everybody else, but SHE is the one who wants to be the same. She clearly wants to match the estates of her parents and peers, the respectable families with good educations. Instead, she gets none of that. She eventually comes to term with her lot in life, doling out advice such as “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” This ‘acceptance’ is a running motif we’ll explore a bit later on.

Lt. Dan is another character that clearly wants something--to serve his country like his forefathers. During a battle in Vietnam, he is wounded on the battlefield and, if not for Gump, he would have died in the field. However, he is OK with his fate. He knew the risks and understands the penalties of battle. Instead of dying with honor like he wants, he is saved, but then is set loose as a cripple with nowhere to go and no direction or ambition in life.  He is stripped of everything that defined him. Sure, he eventually finds peace with his place in the world, but that’s the film’s ideology at work, trying to pass off accepting one’s place as peaceful and productive.

A character that bucks this trend is Bubba, a simple man just like Forrest who dreams of running a shrimping boat. All he wants to do, all he talks about--it all comes back to shrimp. Does Bubba achieve his goal? No. He dies in Forrest’s arms while serving in Vietnam, a battle he was drafted into. Bubba is the only one who doesn’t accept his place, and upon his death asks: “Why did this have to happen?” His question is heartbreaking, and the most meaningful, emotionally honest moment in the whole film.

And finally, we have Forrest’s true love, Jenny. Presented as a free spirit who wants to be a singer, Jenny’s character is used to explore the other side of American iconography that Forrest can’t go, such as the Hippie movement and the emergence of drug and alcohol abuse. She is abused by her father, beaten by her boyfriend, and just as she cleans herself up and comes to terms with the mistakes she’s made, she dies of AIDS, leaving her son in Forrest’s care.

And now we come to Forrest. All he wants is Jenny. That’s it. But he doesn’t actually DO much of anything in pursuit of that. He coasts throughout the whole film, doing what he’s told and accepting whatever comes his way. And because of this, he succeeds. In boot camp, his Drill Sergeant asks him “What is your sole purpose in this army?”

“To do whatever you tell me to,” he replies.

That, right there, is my problem with “Forrest Gump.” Forrest doesn’t do anything more then the bare minimum, and succeeds to an incredible degree. He meets presidents, wins awards, and finds himself an observer to many historical events that nearly define the late 20th century. And all of the peripheral characters--Jenny, Mama, Bubba, Lt Dan--all of them try to achieve something more than what they started with, and they are brutally undercut, as if the universe is playing some cruel, cosmic joke on them all.

Ultimately, the film tells us to accept our place. Sit down, shut up, do what you’re told and don’t ask questions. How is that a remotely American sentiment? Thomas Jefferson infused in our very Declaration of Independence the right to the pursuit of happiness. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of our ability to rise and fall within American culture. Our social structure and class system enables and encourages this. Our ambition is what makes that happen. Our desire to improve our way of life and contribute to our society is a cornerstone of American culture. “Forrest Gump” mocks it, punishing those who dream and rewarding those who rest on their laurels and wait for things to come to them.

The film is technically sound, perfectly acted and well directed. But thematically, it’s reprehensible. Life may be like a box of chocolates, but you don’t have to accept what you get. You can try for better. “Forrest Gump” tells us not to. The film claims that floating along like a feather upon the breeze is the best way to go about life. I can’t support that idea. Not for a moment.

What do you think? Half the fun is getting in on the conversation, so sound off in the comments below. Whether you agree or disagree, your opinion is welcome, and we’d love to hear it.

John Shannon can be reached at refocusjohn@gmail.com

Next week on ReFocus: “The Brothers Bloom”

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3 comments:

  1. Leshy said...

    I haven't seen the movie in a while so I'm going off of memory here. But I think you've got the right idea, but are headed in the wrong direction (in my opinion)

    I quote: "While it uses major American symbols and situations from the past 50 years as a backdrop in order to elicit a nostalgic response from the baby boomer crowd, it also employs these symbols and situations to mask a central theme that is, frankly, un-American."
    I think the whole 'point' of the film is all that is America. And that includes what is worse about America. You've got the Vietnam War, and see what it does to Lt. Dan? How did Americans treat vets after the war. That dark side is explored here. Sure theres the glorious and glamorous side to Hollywood and stardom - true Americanism, but this movie shows how it can destroy people (ie Jenny) and again, that side of American isn't always visited. Here, it is.

    Clearly a film, like any piece of art, is meant to be viewed by people, who by human nature will have their own interpretation of it. This is just my take. Forrest Gump is a movie about the American dream - the good and bad... and the fact that for many it is just a dream.

  2. John said...

    Leshy: I see your point, and while I agree that the film does a good job of showing the downside to the American dream and people getting knocked down, it doesn't show the triumph or perseverance we are capable of.

    Mama, Bubba, and Jenny all die unfulfilled, and while Lt Dan gets back his legs and becomes wealthy, all of that happens offscreen while Gump runs across the country.

    I like your last line insinuating that the American Dream is just that: a dream. But the movie seems to encourage people to not even attempt to dream, instead to just sit back and watch life pass by.

  3. Anonymous said...

    John, your critique was great and hit points I've seen others make about why this shouldn't be regarded as a good movie. But I've always felt that although I couldn't defend the movie, or Forrest, on those points, there was something valuable in it. There was a reason that I, and so many others love this movie despite the excellent points so many have made about it not being a very good message.

    Your review, the first commenter, and a recent airing on TBS (weekly edition as you mentioned) have finally given me a grasp on what it might be that makes this film work on a thematic/message level.

    As you and the first commenter "Leshy" mentioned, the subject is The American Dream. Everything you say about Lt. Dan, Bubba, and Jenny is 100% correct--they all try to be successful (war, shrimping, political movements) and are punished for it. Forrest is successful without trying. This is a point often criticized about Forrest and the movie--he has no ambition or passion and succeeds anyway. Agreed this is not an American value.

    But let's look deeper. Forrest doesn't care about any of the successes he had--not war hero, ping-pong champ, not shrimp captain, political speaker, or investor/gazillionaire. He's not happy after any of that. He gives it all away. His ambition is Jenny. To get her to love him. He is thwarted most of the movie and when he does succeed it's bittersweet because she soon dies.

    I think the message here is that maybe we (America) think that the American Dream is success. Being the best at Something. Being Rich. Changing history. But what if the American Dream is/was the ability to love someone else and raise a family with them. If America's best gift to the world is a large middle-class (i.e. people who aren't wealthy, super successful, or famous, but who are able to make a living and have a family) then I think maybe the Dream is alive and well...and being displayed by Forrest. And the message is that maybe no matter how hard we work, or don't work, or how successful we are or aren't, we can still experience love and be loved.

    I've seen other critiques say that Forrest never stands for anything, but in his one boastful moment he does say "I know what love is." Maybe we should believe him.