Like so many films adored in their time, Forrest Gump was bound to face backlash. In a year filled with fantastic and groundbreaking films like The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, Ed Wood and The Lion King, it was Forrest Gump that took home the 1994 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. To this day, some viewers believe it to be a flawless masterpiece, while others despise the thing both for being overly saccharine and for beating out whatever film they preferred that year. I admit that Forrest Gump is a wonderfully entertaining film to watch, with groundbreaking special effects and good performances all around (I find Gary Sinise’s performance as Lt. Dan particularly strong), but the more I think about Forrest Gump, the more I start to question if it’s all that great. Does it actually have a terrible message hidden under the light entertainment exterior?
Forrest Gump paints its hero as a man who just kind of stumbles into history, not taking a side on things but rather just experiencing them. On the surface, it doesn’t feel like a movie that’s trying to make a statement about anything, but in a way, isn’t that kind of making a statement?
Forrest doesn’t join any political movements, protest anything, or seem to believe in much at all, yet everything works out wonderfully for him. He is successful in business, strikes it rich, ends up with the woman he’s obsessed over all of his life (albeit only for a short while), and is raising a son by the end. It is quite bizarre that with all of the huge world events that Forrest lives through (Civil rights, Vietnam, Hippies, Watergate, etc.), he doesn’t seem to care about any of them. Sure, he’s not intelligent, but he is shown throughout as a caring and kind person, so why wouldn’t he at least have something of an opinion? Being apolitical towards certain issues is absolutely understandable, but it gets to a point where indifference is in fact taking a stance.
Gump‘s issue with this political indifference starts right off the bat. Forrest begins telling his story to a stranger at a bus stop, and he tells her that he was named after his ancestor Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan.
Gump says his mother named him after Bedford Forrest “to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense.” Never mind the fact that Bedford Forrest started up the single most dangerous and racist organization in American history—let’s just remember him as a good man who did an occasional bad thing. Even worse, the film has Gump telling this story to a black woman, who stays and continues to listen to his story for a while.
Obviously, Forrest Gump is not intelligent and might not understand the Ku Klux Klan on his own, but his mother is not portrayed as unintelligent. If she gave him this name, she clearly had mixed feelings on the founder of the KKK, and yet she is only portrayed throughout the film as a loving, caring person. The KKK is such a cut-and-dry issue that not taking a hard stance against it means sympathizing with it. There can’t really be a middle ground.
The Vietnam scenes are equally limp-wristed. After college, a recruiter tells Forrest he should join the army, and he agrees. On the bus, he meets Bubba, whose dream is to go into the shrimping business. This would be fine, except cooking shrimp is shown to be the profession of Bubba’s family since the days they were slaves. We only see a few seconds of this in flashback of course, but again, it refuses to make any kind of statement. The only major black character in the film is perfectly content doing the same line of work his family has for years, with the only difference being that it would now be a paid job.
On the positive side of things, the Vietnam scenes do take a darker tone than the rest of the film, as they should. On the negative, though, let’s look at how these scenes really paint Forrest and Vietnam. Forrest is only there for a short time, but he saves men and becomes a hero. Sure, his friend Bubba dies, and while Forrest is clearly sad about this, there don’t seem to be any long term effects.
Forrest seems to suffer absolutely no PTSD of any kind, and even his time recovering in the (ultra clean and not-at-all-gross) military hospital leads to him stumbling into his ping pong skill. Essentially, Forrest Gump goes to war, becomes a decorated hero, and suffers no lifelong issues from the horrifying warfare. See how making no statement is actually making a statement? A pro-Vietnam film wouldn’t really need to change anything.
Now, the more negative effects of war are touched on with Lieutenant Dan, easily the most well-rounded and interesting character in the film. After losing his legs in Vietnam, Dan’s life goes into a downward spiral, but as he and Forrest go into the shrimp boat business together, he begins to get better.
It does kind of feel like Forrest “cures” Dan of his PTSD, but to be fair, it’s not shown as happening all at once, but rather over time. However, this ultimately leads to no anti-war statement being made, as Dan’s issues are painted as Dan’s alone, and not a greater effect of war. They appear to be curable, simply with time and nice people.
As Forrest seems to represent the traditional American experience (going to college, playing football, becoming a war hero), Jenny represents the changing face of youth culture. She tries to become a Joan Baez-esque folk singer, and joins the hippie movement and Vietnam protests. In spite of doing all these perfectly valid things, she is portrayed as always running and never content.
In fact, later in life, she is shown falling into dangerous drugs and contemplating suicide, as if these harmless things led to that lifestyle, simply because they were rebellious and non-traditional.
Oh, but it gets worse. What does this life lead to? A terminal disease, heavily implied to be AIDS. She reunites with Forrest for good to tell him that her son is his (from the one time they had sex), and they get married. Even though she is dying, these scenes attempt to show that Jenny is now content with this more traditional life after never wanting it before. It’s an attempt to give a hero some happiness after pining over the girl all of his life, but the way it’s done is sexist and demeaning, cheapening Jenny’s character for the sake of Forrest.
Forrest as a character does not change over the course of the film. He doesn’t have to become a better person, because the film insists on portraying him as morally perfect, even though he is not all there mentally. Although the film doesn’t play it as straight as the weakest examples, it still feels like one of those “Good guy waits around for the girl he’s obsessed with” narratives.
Can a movie work if the lead character has absolutely no arc or development? Well, Forrest Gump was a huge success and won a boatload of Oscars, so obviously yes, but let’s look at some better examples. How about Mary Poppins? Both Gump and Poppins are adaptations with a character’s name in the title, both won Oscars for their lead performance, and both feature a title character who doesn’t really change throughout. However, who really is the protagonist of Mary Poppins?
It’s debatable, but most would argue it’s either the children Jane and Michael or their father George. All three of these characters grow because of Mary’s influence, and you can easily trace their development from beginning to end. George in particular goes from stuffy and strict, to far more fun-loving and open about his emotions. It’s not that he didn’t love his kids in the beginning, just that he didn’t know how to show it.
Similarly, it is debatable who the true protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird is. The story is told from Scout’s perspective, but the heroic actions are done by her father Atticus. Although the book is more about Scout’s life on the whole, the film focuses more on the trial at which Atticus is defending Tom Robinson. However, it is Scout who grows and develops, not Atticus. He causes her growth, but he does not really change as a character.
Now, who is the protagonist of Forrest Gump?
You would be hard-pressed to find someone who argues it is any character besides Forrest himself. Lieutenant Dan has an arc, perhaps the only one in the film, but he’s a supporting character, coming in at the beginning of the Vietnam scenes and only appearing sporadically throughout Forrest’s life. He’s not always right there like Atticus Finch or George Banks. Jenny kind of just appears in and out of Forrest’s life as she sees fit, but she seems to exist mostly as the flip side of Forrest’s traditionalist coin. Therefore, Forrest is the protagonist, but does he grow at all?
The running montage sure seems to act like it’s attempting character growth—heck it throws some awkward dialogue into the voice-over so we know it’s character growth. Forrest says, “My Momma always said you got to put the past behind you before you can move on. And I think that’s what my running was all about.” Um… sure?
Absolutely no one would know this running was meant to symbolize anything without the film telling us, and it clearly was only written in the first place so the soundtrack could include “Running on Empty,” “Against the Wind” and “Go Your Own Way,” but let’s just throw in a line saying it represents his development. His running was all about running from the past? Is that healthy? What does have to run from? Memories of Jenny? Well that’s great, except she sees him running on television, and this is the catalyst for her meeting up with him again anyway! Did he just run until he had moved on? Well, since we can now move on in any way we see fit, moving on…
By the end of the film, the message of Forrest Gump seems to be “Do nothing, and good things will happen to you anyway.” History is constantly happening around Forrest, but he makes no stand whatsoever. Jenny constantly does make a stand for things, but apparently that’s rebellious and she’s dead at the end because of it. By doing nothing, Forrest ends up a multi-millionaire who never needs to work again. When he contributes to history, it’s unknowingly and unintentionally, like pitching John Lennon the idea for “Imagine,” teaching Elvis to dance, and accidentally spying the Watergate break-in. It’s a running joke, but it gets old fast.
Forrest Gump is by no means the only film to have a main character who does nothing and still falls into considerable luck, but no other film plays it so straight. Oddly enough, Hal Ashby’s Being There came out 15 years before Gump, but almost feels like a parody of it. In Being There, Chance (Peter Sellers) is a low-IQ gardener whose simple sayings are interpreted as political brilliance, and by the end, it’s suggested he may become President. In the final scene, he even walks on water, perhaps representing the Messiah everyone believes him to be.
Forrest Gump, however, just has Forrest go through life with success after success, as if this is the way to live.
Am I reading too much into it? Well, what about that feather the film begins and ends on?
It backs up this message perfectly. Like Forrest, the feather just kind of floats along with no control over anything, but everything turns out just fine. If director Robert Zemeckis didn’t want this message to come across, he shouldn’t have begun and ended the film on this image.
Look, I can’t deny Forrest Gump is an entertaining and heartwarming film, but a lot of the themes, both explicit and implicit, really bog the thing down when you think about it. Oh, and one more thing…
Flip the box over. You know exactly what you’re gonna get.