REELING IN THE YEARS
At the beginning of Forrest Gump, a tiny white feather flits in the breeze above Savannah, Georgia. As the credits end, the feather comes to rest on the ground, between the sneaker-shod feet of the title character, who's waiting at a bus stop. This sequence illustrates the theme of the movie (which is based on a novel by Winston Groom) in miniature--the conjunction of randomness and fate. The feather's travels are clearly arbitrary, but that they end between Forrest's feet, and not someplace else, cannot be without significance of some sort.
Forrest, a sweet Southern fellow played as an adult by Tom Hanks, is the plot's feather, and the winds that bat him around--the societal currents of the late 50s through the early 80s--aren't so gentle. Forrest tells his autobiography to a succession of people waiting with him at that bus stop; to the first he confidently asserts that miracles happen every day. Since Forrest Gump is a Robert Zemeckis film, there's good reason to believe he's right.
The first miracle happens near the beginning of the story, in the 50s. Forrest, who is mildly retarded and, as a child, mildly crippled, as well--everything about the guy is mild--is trying to run away from some bullies in spite of the leg braces he's wearing. As he hobbles along, his gait strengthens, and the braces simply crumble off his legs. Seconds later he's sprinting at superhuman speed.
As movie miracles go, it's pretty good--magical but not cloying. Forrest's speed lands him a college football scholarship, and when he goes to Vietnam, it makes him a war hero. His sojourn in an Army hospital is where he discovers the aptitude for Ping-Pong which makes him a celebrity, and his devotion to his friends makes him a business success. He's the happier opposite of Hector in Bill Forsyth's recent Being Human--every turmoil he faces in life ends up rewarding him. Forrest also has a little of Jerzy Kosinski's Chance the gardener from Being There and Woody Allen's Leonard Zelig to him. In the course of his adventures, Forrest weaves his way through the social background of the last three decades. He peers over George Wallace's shoulder at the governor's notorious blocking of the University of Alabama's doors, and does a guileless courtesy to one of the pioneering black students. He meets three presidents, one of whom he moons. He spurs fads and inspires catch phrases and uncovers scandals, and he does all of it without meaning to. These and Forrest's other tall-tale adventures are provided through Ken Ralston's special effects, which are amusing even when, as in the episode involving LBJ, they aren't as seamless as the similar addition-to-historical-footage effects of Zelig (Zelig's were made easier, probably, by being in black and white). Forrest's comic cameos are intended more playfully and facetiously than Zelig's; Zemeckis, who directed Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, seems pleasantly relaxed about the technical side of the film. He wants to make us laugh more than he wants to wow us.
This is not to say that Forrest Gump is a carelessly made picture. Fine work was done on both sides of the camera. Cinematographer Don Burgess gives the sunlit Southern world of Forrest's childhood an intense brightness that is extraordinarily vivid and beautiful. Zemeckis' direction gets a little muddled at times, most notably in a weak episode about Forrest's fling as a cross-country runner, but on the whole he orchestrates this ambitious material splendidly, especially the Vietnam sequences.
The supporting cast includes Sally Field, competent as Forrest's loving mother; Mykelti Williamson, touching as Bubba, Forrest's Army buddy and soulmate; and Gary Sinise, excellent as Lieutenant Dan, Forrest and Bubba's field officer in the war. Robin Wright plays Forrest's lifelong love Jenny, whose own troubles, which run concurrently with Forrest's, spring from her failure to recognize the value of Forrest's undying devotion to her. It's slightly faint praise to say that Wright's never been better than she is here, but this is nonetheless, and happily, the case. The film rests, however, squarely upon the shoulders of Tom Hanks, and he carries it impressively. I found the trailer clips for Forrest Gump off-putting--the deep, throaty drawl Hanks uses, though technically accurate in its inflections, sounds overly affected at first. But the ear quickly adjusts to, and eventually embraces, Forrest's skewed manner of speech, especially because Hanks is able to bring off such a variety of small, subtle effects with it--now declamatory, now conciliatory, now faintly conspiratorial. Hanks is physically excellent, too. He maintains his erect, deliberate, carefully considered stride even when he steps off the side of a moving boat into the water, because it's the most direct path to greet someone he sees on the pier.
Forrest keeps repeating the moral of his story, whenever anyone asks him if he's stupid: "Stupid is as stupid does." The smart people of society create decade after decade of war, bigotry, assassinations and corruption, while Forrest's simple loyalty and bland acceptance of fate leave him, in spite of some bruising losses, at peace with himself and the world. Who, then, is stupid? This may be fair enough, but by itself it's a little too easy, too close to bromide, in the context of a big, fat commercial movie starring a hot Oscar winner. Zemeckis and Hanks make Forrest Gump a most entertaining movie, but the same simplicity that keeps Forrest apolitical keeps the movie safe--commercially safe--from offending anyone. When, for instance, Forrest addresses a group of war protesters, Zemeckis and screenwriter Eric Roth--who know that whatever Forrest says won't fly with one-half of the movie audience or the other--resort to a dumb gag to keep us from hearing his remarks.
For a movie to succeed as a warm, sweet, historical pastiche on an epic scale, which Forrest Gump does, is not a small accomplishment. In its way, Forrest's American odyssey really does have depth. But it's an abstract, "cosmic" type of depth that doesn't risk challenging the audience. We may admire Forrest for his simplicity, but Zemeckis and company shouldn't be praised too lavishly when they willfully try to behave the same way. There's a difference between simplicity and simple-mindedness.
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