Forrest Gump (1994)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay by Eric Roth
From a novel by Winston Groom
I know it’s weird, but there are actual people who don’t like Forrest Gump. (Dr. Seuss described this phenomena as having a heart three sizes too small.) Sentimentality is a powerful thing—it makes people cry and tricks intellectuals into thinking art isn’t good. It also tricks moms into thinking that a movie with LSD use, a guy blowing his load early, sexual bartering, and child molestation is appropriate for an 8 year old—or, maybe I just have a really cool mom.
I was flipping through the channels the other day (I don’t use ‘the guide’) and I landed on Forrest Gump, which is the epitome of a ‘whenever it’s on TV I have to finish it’ movie. I landed on one of Jenny’s hippie scenes, the one where a dude pulls up in a Volkswagen Beetle and asks if anyone wants to go to San Francisco, and Jenny says “I’ll go,” and he says “Far out!”, like a very happy hippie. At that moment, I had a realization: Forrest Gump is a pretty weird movie to be on ABC Family (which is the channel it was on). When I was a little kid, Forrest Gump was just a big, fun movie that made me laugh and then cry at the end. When I was eight, I didn’t understand that when Forrest is sitting on Jenny’s bed in her dorm and she takes off her shirt, he ejaculates early. Forrest Gump is a gritty, indie film masquerading as a Hollywood epic.
I hear it’s based on a book—in fact, when I heard that, that was when I first realized that most movies are based on books. I was surprised, because I can only ever picture Forrest Gump as a movie. I hear in the book, Forrest ends up going into space on one of the Apollo missions—sounds dumb, but whatever, it’s a book, you make up your own pictures. Movies are more interesting than books because with books, an author spends a few hundred dollars on a laptop and describes stuff, whereas a movie director spends a few hundred million dollars of other people’s money to put their vision on the screen. That’s why 99.9% of movies are terrible, and why Forrest Gump is not. It takes rare talent and vision to play with other people’s money correctly, and Robert Zemeckis’ vision as a director is among the best that movies have ever known. And in Forrest Gump, his ability to juggle harsh reality with gut-wrenching sentimentality earned him an Oscar, a ranking on that AFI list I love to mention, and a time slot on ABC Family twenty years later.
There’s a great shot in the movie that exemplifies everything I just said about his talent. It’s during the sequence where Forrest is talking about the rain in Vietnam. “Then one day, the rain just stopped”. We see the soldiers walking in the fake movie rain and then suddenly it stops pouring and there is a lighting gag to show that the sun is out. There is a tiny moment of pause, which is suddenly and tumultuously interrupted by horrific gun fire. Instead of cutting, the shot continues—we follow Forrest as he drops to the ground and ducks behind an embankment in the dirt, and there are CGI gun blasts and explosions going on all around him.
The shot was done on a dolly, or possibly with a Steadicam. It’s not handheld and shaky, the cuts are not jumpy and stylized. This is because Zemeckis knows that the most effective way to show action is to show it. The less your camera gets in the way, the better. Being lazy and relying on tons of coverage is the pitfall of non-stylized movies. The best directors design shots that express the dramatic beats of the story. They design shots that utilize composition, angle, and sometimes camera movement to tell you something about how you’re supposed to feel. In that moment in Forrest Gump, you’re supposed to feel the jagged surprise of war. A cut would ‘work’, but the way it’s done is better. Robert Zemeckis is better.
Forrest Gump came out the same year as Pulp Fiction. As you can imagine, they were both nominated all over the place, and while Gump won some Oscars, Pulp won an MTV Movie Award. In Tarantino’s acceptance speech, he joked, “When you keep losing to Forrest Gump, what do you do? Come to MTV.” (He said the words ‘Forrest Gump’ in a classic, smarmy Tarantino sneer.) Pulp Fiction is a decent movie, and awards are stupid and stuff, but essentially, he’s right: you have to look to thirteen-year-old kids who think they’re cool for appreciating Pulp Fiction. Forrest Gump is a movie made with invisible style designed to evoke intense emotions. Pulp Fiction is too, except it’s a lot more boring and useless.
The irony is, neither film has much of an arc. I’ve always been fascinated by Gump because it doesn’t really have a story. Forrest doesn’t change, but he shouldn’t. How could he? Of course, Forrest Gump isn’t the first movie to tackle this premise. Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) is essentially the same thing. And not a bad movie either, albeit dated. However, since the Hoffman character is not mentally challenged, we expect his journey to mean something more. And with that, we start to feel the length of the film.
Gump famously opens with a symbolic wafting feather, which now looks a lot more fake than it did in 1994 (it basically looked real then). It’s a simple and even easy image, but then again, so is Forrest. He is a soft, warm, and never-changing person; the ‘constant’ in the experiment of the sexual revolution, the hippie movement, the Vietnam war, and all that followed. Similar to Goodfellas, it’s a large-scope story made intimate by documentary-esque calculation and focus on a main character that acts as our shepherd. Both movies are constructed primarily through medium shots, with slight variation. This gives the viewer a close proximity to our chaperone (Gump and Henry respectively) and just enough extra space in the frame to show the world around them. In each film, the camera is almost always moving; this keeps the world alive and simply allows you to show more. But enough has already been said about the beautiful collage-like universe of Forrest Gump.
Forrest Gump isn’t just a picture of a turbulent America, it’s a picture of growing up. In a way, the entire movie is a rite of passage that culminates in Forrest and Jenny’s relationship near the climax of the film. Forrest never grows up, but somehow, in another way, he does—it just takes him a lot longer than most folks. And he is able to deal with insane situations like war, protest, and sexual experimentation, with childlike innocence and sensitivity. That’s why the movie plays so well to kids; from Forrest’s vantage, the world seems pure, even at its most cruel. Parents like it simply because it is a picture of the baby boom generation, and thus, the bridge is gapped. What Hollywood no longer understands is that you need to make movies for adults that kids will like, not movies for kids that adults will like. Adults don’t actually care about Ice Age 2, whereas kids want to feel like adults—it’s the paradox of the whole ”I don’t wanna grow up” thing. They do want to grow up. Why do you think every fucking thirteen year old drinks coffee and wants an iPhone?
My favorite sequence is when Forrest just starts running. There’s no part of the film more inherently symbolic of both Forrest’s journey, and the larger human journey, than the sequential images and sounds of Forrest Gump running across America with a caveman-like beard. The running sequence makes literal what the entire movie has been doing all along. Forrest Gump is a directionless character. He sits and things happen to him. Ironically, it’s when he decides do something that things stop happening. And there is an even more beautiful moment near the end when Forrest is remembering tidbits of his travels and he thinks back on one particular moment when the shadows of the clouds cascaded over the prairies. The movie is intelligent poetry.
But, let’s get back to the grit. There’s a scene where Jenny takes acid and almost commits suicide by standing on a ledge over traffic—another great example of photography eliciting tension. We follow Jenny with clever cuts from inside a seedy hotel room to the balcony where she eventually stands on the ledge. The camera is being used as the viewer; it’s not POV, but more as if we’re looking over the ledge with Jenny. The first time you see it, you absolutely feel like you’re going over that ledge, and the effect is so powerful that it never really leaves on subsequent viewings.
There’s a scene where Jenny’s dad is hunting her down with a whiskey bottle to molest her. Brilliantly, we never see his face; we see him obscured, in wide shot, and most cleverly, in a harsh tracking shot where we see a close up of the whiskey bottle in his hand. Again, Zemeckis understands that suggestion is much more powerful that literal, and that these scenes are from the point of view of a child. It’s that construction that makes them suitable for ABC family, yet also doubly as effective as any R-rated indie, because in Gump, we actually feel the danger and tension of the situation.
Another great example is the Black Panther Party party scene. In it, Zemeckis uses slow motion to put you in Forrest’s mind as he’s seeing Jenny get slapped (very Scorsese-esque). It’s timed to Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix, with Forrest wailing on the guy during the solo. It doesn’t get much grittier than that. The wail session is capped by the hilarious line, “I’m sorry I had to fight in the middle of your Black Panther party” and is a great example of one of the movie’s ingenious switches from high drama to high comedy. It’s the kind of tone only a true artisan can pull off because it requires the meticulous juggling of many threads; if one thread is loose, the whole thing unravels, but if tightly wound, you can dance from laughs to tears within scenes—as happens many times in Gump.
And that’s it really, Forrest Gump is probably the most complex and moving of all of the best movies ever made. Not just in scope, but in the minutia as well. There might not be a more quotable movie, from the famous “Run, Forrest, Run” to the lesser known “It was a bullet wasn’t it, that jumped up and bit ya” or “Haha, we was sittin’ next to a millionaire” or “Your momma sure does care about your schoolin’, son”. And that leads me back to my original point—think about the context of that last quote! How the fuck is a movie where shit like that happens being aired on ABC Family!?
The reason why is because Forrest is a kid watching his own movie. His take on things are the same as the eight-year-old ABC Family viewer. So, thanks mom for showing me Forrest Gump when I was a little kid. You did right by me. (Although we might have to talk about you letting me watch Fargo…)
1 out of 1 stars.
Oh, one more thing! Obviously Forrest Gump is one of the dozen or so perfect movies ever made. However, one thing always bugged me. There’s a great gag that we all know (it was even in the trailer) were Forrest sees Luetenant Dan on the doc and excitedly jumps off his boat to greet him. Since the boat is still moving, it then crashes into an adjacent dock in the background of the coverage. It’s a great visual gag, but it contains a huge continuity error that even bothered my eight-year-old brain. The boat is going to the right, but then in the background it’s going left. Had they simply flipped the coverage shot in post, it would’ve been fine, but as is, it’s oddly jarring and it makes no sense!