The Best Picture Project – Forrest Gump (1994)

Film poster with an all-white background, and a park bench (facing away from the viewer) near the bottom. A man wearing a white suit is sitting on the right side of the bench and is looking to his left while resting his hands on both sides of him on the bench. A suitcase is sitting on the ground, and the man is wearing tennis shoes. At the top left of the image is the film's tagline and title, and at the bottom is the release date and production credits.Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Starring Tom Hanks, Robin Wright and Gary Sinise

Screenplay by Eric Roth, from the Novel by Winston Groom

Forrest Gump is probably not the worst film to ever win Best Picture.  After all, it’s hard to be the worst when films like Cavalcade, Gigi and Around the World In 80 Days all took the top prize.  But just because it’s not the worst, it’s victory might just be the most egregiously wrong in Academy history.

After all, to get the crown, Gump had to overcome two other classic movies – Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption – but even taking those two out of the equation, it’s still not nearly as good as the two other movies left in the race, Quiz Show and Four Weddings and a Funeral.  Quite simply, Forrest Gump might not be the worst to win Best Picture, but it’s easily one of the creakiest.

At its heart, Forrest Gump plays as the love-child of Zelig and Being There.  In the former film, we follow Leonard Zelig, who pops up in all kinds of kooky, historical places – the film coming in the early 1980s it didn’t get the digital benefit Gump did to sell its effects, but that didn’t mean it’s effects didn’t seal the illusion.  In the latter we see the story a simple gardener, Chance, who, through simple witticisms manages to convince everybody he’s not a simple gardener, but is rather some wise and knowing man.

Yes, Forrest Gump is clearly the offspring of these two films – the simple man-child manages to weave his way through history – but unfortunately he’s not the brightest of the children, and it shows.

First of all, the narrative line of the film is strange.  Essentially, the film begins as a story, told by Forrest on a park bench, to many passersby, and in this story he narrates the course of his life up until the time he’s on that bench, which is obviously the early 1980s.  As a device, this narration is fine, at least in terms of those things that happened until that moment when it reaches the bench.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end with him sitting on the bench, instead it carries on for quite some time after and, instead of abandoning the narration it continues, only this time Forrest is narrating the story  to Jenny’s grave, after she’s died of AIDS – they don’t call it AIDS, but if it looks like a duck, well…

Anyway, I’m aware that many other films have this same sort of disjointed narrative to it – in fact, Pulp Fiction is all over the place – but while I can take disjointed, I cannot take inconsistent, and Forrest Gump is nothing but the model of inconsistency.  And while I’d like to concede I might be being too harsh on the film for its awkwardness, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask for a film’s narrator to be employed in a consistent way.  Especially in a film that wins Best Picture.

More problematic, for me, though, is the use of the music.  Yes, there is a lot of classic songs in the film, and yes, the classic songs are fantastic, and yes, I sang along.  However, as the film went on I couldn’t help but get the distinct feeling that the use of the music was manipulating me.  Yes, I know, in every movie the music is there to manipulate the moviegoer, but in this case, it was far worse.  In this case, the film relied so heavily on classic, well-known songs simply as a way of trading upon them in that, because I have such goodwill for the songs, and take them so seriously, I therefore will take the film itself seriously.  This might seem like a silly gripe, but take away the pop-music score and imagine stock music replacing it – would the film come across the same?  I don’t think so.  I think it would fail.  For me, Gump abandons real story telling and takes the lazy way out, giving us good-time montages set to our favorite tunes of yore.

Awkward narrative lines and music problems are one thing, but most problematic?  The film sentimentalizes the depressing.  I mean, in one sense the film is about Forrest and his successes as he lives a clean, good life.  In that way, it praises virtue.  But in another sense, the film is really about the ongoing emotional trauma visited upon victims of sexual abuse and how, while eventually the emotional scars may heal, the physical scars may kill you – hence, Jenny dies of AIDS.  Talk about a kick in the balls.

That it’s such a dark film at times make it ironic that many people saw this film as an anti-dote to the previous three Best Picture winners, Silence of the Lambs, The Unforgiven and Schindler’s List.  That finally, in selecting Forrest Gump the Academy had heard what the general public had to say about a film and decided that a fun film could be Best Picture.  What’s truly ironic here is that while the Academy can be high minded, occasionally they drink the same Kool-Aid as the general public and honor films like Forrest Gump and Gladiator and Crash, easily the three worst Best Pictures of the last twenty years.

As an aside, I remember a debate raging about the politics of Forrest Gump when it was first released, specifically, whether it’s a liberal film or a conservative film.

On the one hand, the liberals in the film are generally shown to be drug users, women beaters, strippers, drunks, etc., while the good, pious, hard-working folk are richly rewarded.

On the other hand, while Jenny eventually has her literal prayer answered, in that the sexual abuse visited upon her is ended, God leaves her mental scars behind.  This, of course, is the same God that saves Forrest’s shrimp business by ruining every other boat in a hurricane, which is pretty much what Forrest prayed for.  Kind of gives you the idea that God, like modern religion, only has time for the capitalists.

Forrest’s Famous Encounters in the film

Below is the most complete list I could come up with for the famous folks Forrest runs into throughout the course of the movie:

Elvis

Bear Bryant

George Wallace

JFK

LBJ

Abby Hoffman

Dick Cavett

John Lennon

Dick Nixon

Shit happens guy

Have a nice day guy

For a list of films seen and yet to be seen, click here.

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