If you want to start out on the broadest level possible, the film is a lesson in 20th century American History. It charts the turbulent course of mankind including assassinations, counter-culture, Vietnam, Anti-War Rallies, The Cold War, Watergate and much much more. The substantial soundtrack dials back the clock to fully immerse the audience in that time and place.
It is the dream movie for pop culture fanatics and history aficionados. That’s why I enjoy it. However, much like the feather that flutters in the breeze drifting this way and that, Forrest Gump is a character who floats through history as it is made. It begins with his leg braces which give inspiration to the Elvis phenomenon. Ultimately, he plays football for Alabama, sees the school desegregated, and becomes an All-American who meets JFK.
Soon it’s off to Vietnam, followed by a Medal of Honor, and a trip back home thanks to a million dollar wound. Forrest gets a taste of the nation’s capital and soon becomes an accomplished ping pong player, makes it big in the shrimping business, and heads home back to Alabama once more after buying Apple stock. All these moments are absorbing to be sure, but that alone would make the film just okay as a historical drama.
Tom Hanks‘ Forrest Gump is the important piece in the entire equation because of the people that gravitate towards him. Forrest himself only has an IQ of 75, but he is so unlike many of the characters we are used to. Not because he is “simple” so to speak, because he is far from it. Perhaps it’s the fact that he is wholly genuine, loyal, and innocent. That’s almost unheard of these days. He seems to stand at complete odds with the history that is happening all around. Sometimes it looks very different from his eyes or he is completely oblivious to what is happening.
However, in some ways, he seems to have things figured out better than most. He loves those close to him, does what he loves, and never loses his positive spirit. His observations on life might be plain, but they are nonetheless powerful to those around him. To Hank’s credit, he infuses the character with a slow-witted charm and gives him a deep southern drawl. He’s Forrest, Forrest Gump. That’s all he needs to be.
Sally Field has a relatively short screen appearance, which is still extremely important because Forrest’s mother is the one who helps guide his whole outlook on life. She encourages him to make the best of what God has given him and to realize he is no different than other “normal” people. Her love, cultivation, and homespun knowledge is what seemingly allows Forrest to lead a full life, though pithy sayings only go so far, at some point you just have to live.
Jenny (Robin Wright) is another character who is perhaps a greater drifter than Forrest himself. She is constantly trying to find her way through the turbulent times while Forrest’s feet always seem firmly planted on the ground (Rather ironic since he is always running). She is a prodigal and always prone to return to Forrest who always welcomes her back with open arms no matter the circumstances. It might be a stint in a nightclub, living the hippie life, joining the Black Panther Party, or being with other men. Forrest is forever loyal and protective of her. She cannot always handle having him in her life, and she wishes to find her own way. He is always there for her, though, even up to the point of taking care of a son.
Bubba and Lieutenant Dan are Forrest’s best good friends and both men are greatly impacted by Vietnam. Bubba dies and Lt. Dan loses his legs (not to mention his self-respect). Forrest is fiercely loyal to both comrades, starting up Bubba Gumps Shrimping in honor of his late friend and giving work to Lt. Dan when he needs it most. He is a friend for the ages and he takes the title seriously.
Calling Forrest Gump just a historical drama or even sentimental tripe might be partially accurate and yet it cohesively adds up to more than its parts. 20 years have gone by, true, and some of the luster may have gone away, but certainly not all of it. Though it might be far from perfect, it is a story that is worth any shortcomings, because it has heart and a fantastical telling of American history that is still worth watching.