Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis
Credit: Paramount
by Paul Attard Featured Film Retrospective

Forrest Gump — Robert Zemeckis

August 28, 2022

“The problem with Forrest Gump is it made a billion dollars. If we’d just made a successful movie, Bob and I would have been geniuses. But because we made a wildly successful movie, we were diabolical geniuses. Is it a bad problem to have? No, but there’s books of the greatest movies of all time, and Forrest Gump doesn’t appear because, oh, it’s this sappy nostalgia fest. Every year there’s an article that goes, ‘The Movie That Should Have Won Best Picture and it’s always Pulp Fiction.’ […] Look, I don’t know, but there is a moment of undeniable heartbreaking humanity in Forrest Gump when Gary Sinise — he’s playing Lieutenant Dan — and his Asian wife walk up to our house on the day that Forrest and Jenny get married.” – Tom Hanks, June 2022

Conventional wisdom tells us that Robert Zemeckis makes classical, family-friendly movies that are sappy, oblivious, and loaded with intrusive special effects. Conventional wisdom also tells us that Forrest Gump — a transitional work that could be accurately described as Zemeckis’ first prestige product — is the epitome of this brash, spectacle-prone style that favors immediacy in its pageantry over anything resembling an attempt at dialectics. In a sense, both of these statements contain elements of truth to them, especially when they overlap: Zemeckis and Gump are about as synergistic of a pairing as one can get between art and artist, the perfect combination of a savvy director working his way around an especially demanding source material. But that’s the thing with conventional wisdom: it usually only has an element of the truth. 

Yet, it’s the way actuality collides and merges with fiction to create a new narrative that makes us want to believe it all anyway; the sinister quality of any good lie is that it’s grounded in some semblance of truth. So, like most things in life, there’s more to Zemeckis and Gump’s story than what first appears. As the ever-famous line in this film goes: “My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” What may first appear rough, like a peanut brittle outer layer, may soon be smoothed over with a soft nougat center. But let’s take that line and actually think about it for a second; more specifically, let’s think about why it has resonated with so many people over the years. There’s the qualifier that his adage was first spoken by Forrest’s mother; this is totally insignificant but adds a dash of humanity to the sentiment, nevertheless. Now, try to follow the logic from the remainder of the first sentence to the next. It’s difficult, mainly because you, in fact, do know what you’re going to get with a box of chocolates: they lay it out for you rather nicely in the box itself. It’s word salad that’s been nicely boxed away and put into a quick and clean slogan; it’s paradoxically so obvious and nebulous that anyone can attach their own feelings to it with ease. 

This is maybe why Forrest Gump has enjoyed such a popular following two decades after its release: audience members, like Forrest, have narrativized their own life in such a cursory manner that they can just as easily place themselves in Gump’s perspective. When historical events pass by Forrest, they only make sense after the fact, once contextualized and given order through the art of storytelling. When Gump partakes in this verbal ritual (of telling strangers and passersby the record of his life), he’s engaging in a solipsistic practice that’s required in order to make sense of one’s own place within not just their life, but history itself. Zemeckis, like Gump, understands much like Kierkegaard that “life can only be understood backward, but must be lived forwards.” But that interpretation — or, at least ending one’s analysis there — plays into what most critics deem Forrest Gump to ultimately be: “some kind of weird, conservative fantasy” that takes pot shots at hippies and the Black Panthers before ending on a grace note of normalcy. 

In one of the most objectively based pieces of film criticism (nay, art criticism) ever written, Dave Kehr outright rejected these claims in his contemporaneous review: “What looks at first like a bright, bouncy and sentimental trip through the baby-boom era… turns out, on closer inspection, to be a dark and driven work, haunted by violence, cruelty and a sense of the tragically absurd.” Throughout Forrest’s travels, it’s easy to be lulled by his sweet demeanor and pleasant charm — and while, yes, it is highly problematic that a non-disabled person is playing Forrest, Hanks undeniably radiates charisma at nearly every key emotional turn, bringing a childlike wonder that’s required for this long-game con — but make no mistake: his story is one of pain and suffering, where victory is met with equally crushing defeats. Raised in a single-mother household and forced to wear leg braces at a young age, Gump bears witness to the incestual abuse of best friend Jenny, the death of his close companion Bubba in Vietnam, the dismemberment of his future-business associate Lieutenant Dan, and the eventual death of his life-partner due to AIDS; to claim Gump in any way plainly celebrates the last 50-or-so years of American history simply isn’t looking closely enough. 

But Zemeckis, like Gump, is such a master storyteller that it can be difficult to pick up on the film’s tonal subtleties when there’s usually so much else going on at any given moment. The opening feather shot — while certainly a bit forced as far as visual metaphors go — was, up to that point in time, the longest CGI-heavy continuous take in history; while appearing simple, delicate, and offhand in its approach, the opening scene is a far more painstaking enterprise that what viewers would first imagine. From there on, Zemeckis’ skills become even more dexterous in terms of immersion and world-building: amplifying the general principle of Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s entire visual conceit, Gump is placed into a literal historical record when meeting the likes of President John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson, or when he casually gives John Lennon the inspiration needed to write “Imagine.” The effect isn’t flawless, but it’s the uncanny nature of the implementation that provides, in real-time, documentation of the aforementioned melding of actuality and fiction. If anything, we want to believe in this footage’s veracity because it looks like something is just a tad off. 

During a 2015 career-spanning retrospective of Zemeckis’ work at the Museum of Modern Art, Kehr would further praise Gump as “a darkly satirical vision in the guise of folk wisdom,” one that “sailed past critics (who hated it) and the Academy (who gave it six Oscars).” Folk wisdom, it seems, operates in much the same way as the previously stated “conventional” wisdom; the wisdom Gump wishes to peddle is the same type of drivel that is peddled about him and the eponymous motion picture. Again, Zemeckis couldn’t pick a better property to represent his oeuvre: he and his films, while seemingly cherishing and endorsing tradition, always have a little more going on than first meets the eye.

Part of Robert Zemeckis: Movie Magician