“Forrest Gump” is an easy target: A sweet movie featuring one of the most beloved movie stars of all time. It’s a slick and inviting celebration of the human spirit through the lens of a wide-eyed innocent, and utilizes technology to brilliant ends. However, “Forrest Gump” deserves scrutiny, not because its cheesy protagonist has become a pop culture punchline — after all, Forrest’s box-of-chocolates metaphor works just fine — but viewed 25 years after its release lead to box office success and six Oscars, it remains a bad movie that gets worse with age, and much scarier than its cozy reputation suggests.
There’s a reason the movie became a beacon to an antiquated Republican Party when it came out in the run-up to the 1994 midterm elections: “Forrest Gump” preaches conservatism in its bones, whether its creators intended it that way or not. Through the lens of Tom Hanks’ lovable naif, who somehow stumbles through every monumental moment in American history and emerges unscathed, “Forrest Gump” reads as a repudiation to any nuanced assessment of the country. It celebrates family values and obedience to the system over anyone who clashes with it. Every whiff of rebellion is suspect.
This no-nothing white man becomes a war hero and a wealthy man simply by chugging along, participating in a country that dictates his every move. He never comprehends racism or the complexities of Vietnam; the movie portrays political activism and hippy culture as a giant cartoon beyond Forrest’s understanding, while presenting his apolitical stance as the height of all virtue.
Viewed in retrospect, “Forrest Gump” whitewashes and dumbs down American history at every turn. But that’s an old critique that shouldn’t stop the presses.
These days, it’s clearer than ever that “Forrest Gump” operates within the constraints of a dangerous fantasy in which these hard questions don’t matter. It’s fake news on an epic scale. Here’s a character born in the Deep South, the grandson of a Ku Klux Klansman, raised surrounded by segregation and bigotry. Though Forrest’s disinterest in these crude values suggests an innate colorblindness, he’s less conscious progressive than disinterested everyman. “Forrest Gump” idolizes that mindset, and what’s worse, director Robert Zemeckis exploits these major aspects of American history as empty signifiers for an exuberant technological experiment.
The special effects haven’t aged all that well, but they were pretty hokey in the first place. The CGI exists to gives this decade-spanning story its true raison d’etre: We get to see young Forrest teach Elvis to dance, shake hands with JFK and Nixon, address an anti-Vietnam protest (alongside Abbie Hoffman), and work the late-night circuit alongside John Lennon. In theory, Forrest’s ability to wander through the “real” world as a fictional character turns him into an avatar for America’s bumpy ride through the second half of the 20th century.
But consider what that means: Though Forrest makes serious strides by asking no hard questions or pushing back on whatever opportunities come his way, childhood sweetheart Jenny (Robin Wright) suffers for her sins. These seem to be comprised of childhood abuse, sexual promiscuity, a bad taste in boyfriends, and hippy protests. Forrest doesn’t get it; by virtue of empathizing with his worldview, the movie doesn’t, either.
When these allegations first came up around the time of the release, the “Forrest Gump” team punched back with a mixture of defiance and confusion. Zemeckis argued that he was playing to both sides of the aisle. “My film is a party to which everyone can bring a bottle,” he said. And when producer Steve Tish accepted his Oscar for Best Picture, he took it to the masses: “‘Forrest Gump’ isn’t about politics or conservative values. It’s about humanity.” Hanks echoed that sentiment. “The film is nonpolitical,” he said, “and thus nonjudgemental.” Two years later, Fox News coined the term “fair and balanced” to describe its partisan analysis of the new cycle with the same degree of credibility.
Movies provide windows into the world and the way it fits together; by that very definition, they take on political ramifications, especially when they utilize images loaded with preexisting definitions. As “Forrest Gump” careens through Americana, it can’t help but cast its gaze at the country’s fiery counterculture and roll its eyes. That strikes a notable contrast to the radical energy of several movies released the same year, including Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn” and “Natural Born Killers,” which provide much savvier explorations of American society and its various fragmented pieces through their sharp narrative frameworks.
Yet we remember “Forrest Gump” because it goes down easy, and pretends that the world just works that way.
Like the character himself, the positioning of “Forrest Gump” as lacking any political worldview stems from more innocent times when that argument held some water. Before the country’s charged post-9/11 climate, before the fractured discourse of social media, before Sean Hannity and deep-fakes and catfishing and whatever else has made this world so freakish and unreliable, “Forrest Gump” coasted along without any serious challenge to its logic. (While the similar embracing of “Green Book” might suggest that nothing has changed, the backlash already seems to have put that misconceived movie in its place.)
Viewed today, “Forrest Gump” has the eerie aura of a science fiction movie, with its wandering central figure coming across like an alien who perceives every meaningful aspect of the world around him as so foreign he can only gaze back at it and speak his mind. However, the movie was prescient in one significant fashion. It presents a grinning idiot savant as epitomizing everything about America, suggesting that he could catapult to fame and fortune he doesn’t really earn, while people enduring genuine struggles to make a difference in the world struggle all the way to the grave. To that end, for better or worse, “Forrest Gump” was ahead of its time.