A kind of epic fable that rambles through recent American history, "Forrest Gump" is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound bites and fury, signifying everything.
Forrest is the sprite of the baby boom generation. Can it be meaningful that he's got an IQ of 75? As played by Tom Hanks, that specialist in decency, he's one thing baby boomers have never been: completely un-self-conscious. This makes him almost the Patient Zero of baby boomer concerns, present at the creation of most of our obsessions. He's the first to jog, for example, and he's the man who notices flashlight beams in Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate. And there he is on the podium at one of the big peace rallies. And there he is with an M-16 in the steamy, lethal deltas of 'Nam. He's a one-man David Halberstam book.
The film is charming, but shallow. It amuses mightily, occasionally moves you, but almost never engages you at any deeper level. That's because Forrest and his girlfriend, Jenny (Robin Wright, of "The Princess Bride"), who haunt the movie's two hours and 20 minutes, are imagined in such broad symbolic terms that they only occasionally crackle into the kind of authentic, unique life that is mandatory in drama. Think of it as a more tightly focused remake of the classic cavalcade film, "The Story of Mankind"; this one is "The Story of Baby-boom-kind." The only thing missing is yogurt.
Forrest, born on the Gulf Coast of Alabama in the '40s and come to boyhood in the heart of the placid '50s, is "different," as an educator tells his Mama (Sally Field). It's not merely his IQ, it's his amazing placidity combined with his complete inability to understand irony.
Hanks is brilliant in evoking Forrest's good-heartedness; he cannot really perceive evil in men, and yet he is so untainted by bigotry or ideology that he makes the perfect witness. He's Candide with Nike running shoes on his feet and a Combat Infantryman's Badge on his lapel. It's a performance built out of ,, subtly nerd-like body postures combined with a farm animal's blinkless, warm-eyed stare -- his Forrest always looks like he's wearing a girdle and has just hit the Visine bottle for a double hit of eyewash. His wardrobe follows its own rules: blue checked shirts, always buttoned up to the Adam's apple; a jacket; a bumpkin's '50s buzzcut that could have been given by Ike himself. And when he speaks, it's in the sing-songy, easy cadences of a Pentecostal minister.
His one gift, other than an empathy that the winner of the Nobel Prize for Social Work might boast, is speed. He's a runner, effortless and graceful; we are given to understand that this is the result of his mother's having his perfectly healthy legs strapped in steel braces for 10 years to "straighten his back." At the University of Alabama, this speed equates into a job as a kickoff return specialist, where the bemused Bear Bryant calls him "the dumbest player I ever seen." But give him the ball and off he goes, virtually untouchable, running to the horizon; the band has to be trained to prevent him from leaving the end zone.
Forrest's pilgrim's progress through life will be as effortless as his scampers through the Ole Miss defense. In counterpoint, Jenny's trips will be much rougher. She's conceived as the darkness to his light, and in some degree the movie is constructed as a geometric problem in parallels. He soars; she falls.
A beautiful child molested mercilessly by her sharecropper father, her fate is the possibly inevitable response to such a dysfunctional childhood. And the filmmakers do not avert their eyes from her seduction by the dark side. She makes a different odyssey: from hippie to peace demonstrator to drug addict to stripper to prostitute to early AIDS patient. Her only moment of grace comes when she returns to Forrest for a little bit and ends up carrying his hopes for the future. But it's as if the filmmakers (director Bob Zemeckis of "Back to the Future" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" fame, screenwriter Eric Roth, from Winston Groom's novel) are trying to capture the duality of their native country, the glory of its fruited plains and the squalor of its back alleys.
The single best sustained sequence follows Forrest in Vietnam, where he befriends a black soldier (Mykelti Williamson) and his decent but tightly wound lieutenant (Gary Sinese). Zemeckis, of course, is a great technician and, using the latest from Industrial Light and Magic, he's able to give the one brief combat sequence a terrible authenticity that rivals anything in "Platoon." We see tracers flick among the men as the fire comes out of the glades on the platoon. Here, only momentarily, the movie stops its infernal forward motion long enough to let us feel the loss of young men in war and have an insight into Forrest's grief and the lieutenant's abiding bitterness. (One character loses his legs; unbelievable special effects give that loss an eerie, unsettling reality.)
The same magic gives the film its unique texture; in fact, this is probably the most effects-laden film you will ever see that is coincidentally the film with the least sense of intrusion by those same effects. Its most astonishing illusion, achieved through some computer mumbo jumbo so complex that only a child could understand, is to place Hanks within the archival footage, so that he's glimpsed kibitzing with the likes of JFK (as football hero), Lyndon Johnson (as war hero) and Richard Nixon (as Ping-Pong hero). In fact, much of the film's running time is taken up with the simple device of exploiting Forrest's uncanny knack for being at the right place at the right time -- inspiring the smile button and the "---- Happens" bumper sticker, for example.
These pleasures are considerable but wispy. More powerful is the tragic relationship between Forrest and Jenny, which might be taken as a metaphorical quest of their generation for its own soul, as it chronicles all the odd places those of us born in the aftermath of World War II have gone to look for it. It's not a profound meditation, but it is a meditation rather than a slobbery job of pandering, which is no small accomplishment.
Someone once said God loved idiots, babies and the United States of America. If that is so, then he will surely love "Forrest Gump," for Forrest is all three of them.
Starring Tom Hanks and Robin Wright
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Released by Paramount