Tom Hanks has played many iconic careers in his long and incredible career. The guy who was Sleepless in Seattle in the movie Sleepless in Seattle. The guy who was not Private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan. The toy in Toy Story. But of all his roles, one stands above them all as one of the most quoted, confounding, endearing, and oddly hard to pin down. That character loved to say their own name: Forrest, Forrest Gump. The 1994 Robert Zemeckis film starring Tom Hanks as the world’s fastest Alabaman is currently in the top ten most-streamed movies on Netflix USA. It truly speaks to the enduring, bizarre power of this incredibly strange film that managed to lodge itself into popular imagination so deeply that decades later, people are still watching this movie.
Summing up the plot of Forrest Gump is pretty easy, in one sense. You can pretty much look up the history of the United States in the second half of the 20th century, and you pretty much have it. The story of Forrest Gump has been so parodied and imitated that it practically feels like a fairy tale: Tom Hanks is a man of good heart and few wits sits on a bench and tells his life story to a series of people, none of whom stick around to hear the entire thing. It turns out that Hanks has been present for most of the significant events in recent American history, with Robert Zemeckis’ groundbreaking use of visual effects inserting him into situations as disparate as the racial desegregation of public schools in Alabama and a talk show appearance with John Lennon. But through it all, Hanks’ only real thoughts are of his one childhood friend and love, Jenny (Robin Wright).
Forrest Gump is based on a novel of the same name by Winston Groom. Like Gump, Groom was raised in Alabama and also like him, served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War. That is pretty much where the similarities between Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump and any human being that has ever existed end. According to Hanks, it took him some time to figure out how even to voice Forrest Gump, let alone embody his odd sense of idiot sainthood. Groom did not particularly care for the adaptation of his work, stating that the movie had taken the “rough edges” off the character. And while the movie version definitely presents itself as a feel-good story with a bittersweet (mostly sweet) ending, it is perhaps deceptively gentle.
Much has been made of Forrest Gump as being a political film, but no one can quite agree whether it is conservative or progressive, a paean to the lost innocence of Baby Boomers, a scathing rebuke of them, a cinematic depiction of the fundamental lie of the American dream, or a celebration of it. Tom Hanks himself said of the movie: ” The film is nonpolitical…and thus nonjudgmental. It doesn’t just celebrate survival, it celebrates the struggle.” An artist has a right to interpretation of their own work. However, it is difficult to see how Hanks arrived at this conclusion.
Part of the oddity of Forrest Gump is that the character both struggles and absolutely does not. He is mocked and looked down upon and stoned by children for his status as the “town idiot” (as his football coach calls him). He is wounded in Vietnam. He encounters existential heartbreak so intense it makes him run cross country for three years straight.
But on the other hand, Tom Hanks also does not struggle even a little bit. He is rewarded time and time again for no particular reason and not particularly respected by anyone for it. He becomes a millionaire through no real action of his own, a war hero by accident, and a celebrity who no one seems to recognize. This is a movie of heartfelt moments that border on sappy (or even dreamlike), as in when an enormous crowd of hippie protestors cheers for Forrest and Jenny embracing in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. It also includes a scene that slowly pans to reveal Jenny’s horrified college roommate has been in the room the entire time when he prematurely ejaculates into a towel.
Forrest Gump is a truly bizarre and bizarrely popular movie. It cemented Tom Hanks as one of the preeminent actors of his generation by giving him back-to-back Best Actor Academy Awards (following his performance in Philadelphia, another movie much stranger than its reputation would suggest). It grossed nearly $700 million in its theatrical run alone; for comparison, that is over $1.2 billion dollars adjusted for inflation. The only movies that do that now generally involve more than one Spider-Man. It won a total of six Oscars and gave director Robert Zemeckis the freedom to do whatever he wants for the rest of his life, even if that means The Polar Express. It is somehow fitting that Forrest Gump should still be so watched decades after its release because it is still somehow impossible to tell exactly what it is trying to get across. Maybe it isn’t even really trying.