A picaresque story of a simpleton’s charmed odyssey through 30 years of tumultuous American history, “Forrest Gump” is whimsy with a strong cultural spine. Elegantly made and winningly acted by Tom Hanks in his first outing since his Oscar-winning “Philadelphia” performance, Robert Zemeckis’ technically dazzling new film is also shrewdly packaged to hit baby boomers where they live. Pic offers up a non-stop barrage of emotional and iconographic identification points that will make the postwar generation feel they’re seeing their lives passing by onscreen. Paramount’s target audience is obvious, and boffo B.O. should ensue.
In a part Dustin Hoffman might once have killed for, Hanks plays a kind of semi-imbecile whose very blankness makes him an ideal audience prism through which many of the key events of the ’50s through early ’80s can be viewed. Lacking any ideology or analytical powers, Gump is the immutable innocent moving in a state of grace through a nation in the process of losing its innocence, an Everyman who acts instinctively in an age defined by political divisiveness.
Although hard to pigeonhole, the picture unavoidably recalls the idiot-savant classic “Being There,” and significantly resembles “The World According to Garp” in tone. Most often mentioned, however, will be its similarity to Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” as some of the biggest laughs stem from wizardly interpolations of the Gump character into newsreel and TV footage of several U.S. presidents and other leading figures.
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As Gump narrates his story to a succession of listeners at a Savannah, Ga., bus stop, a most curious life is revealed in evocative, often jokey flashbacks. Gump is raised in an old plantation mansion, now a boarding house, by his abandoned mother (Sally Field), who tells the boy that he’s no different from anyone else despite his 75 I.Q. Outfitted with leg braces and shunned by other boys, young Forrest finds his only friend in a beautiful little girl, Jenny, herself the victim of abuse at home.
Once Forrest, in a startling scene, literally breaks free of his leg shackles, he becomes “a running fool,” darting about wherever he goes at terrific speed. Even though he doesn’t understand the rules, he becomes a star running back on the high school and college football teams, and it’s at the U. of Alabama that the grown-up Forrest has his first date with destiny, as a dopey-looking bystander next to Gov. George Wallace as the first black students are admitted through the school’s doors.
After another encounter, with JFK, Forrest heads for Vietnam, where his dim-wittedness makes him the ideal Army soldier. On the way, he meets Bubba Blue (Mykelti Williamson), another not especially swift fellow who’s like Forrest’s black brother, a man whose dreams of a shrimping life give Forrest something to aspire to once they’re back.
After an intense battle, Forrest saves the lives of several men, including his commanding officer, Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise), who nonetheless loses his legs, and Forrest returns home to receive the Medal of Honor from LBJ and have a chance reunion with Jenny (Robin Wright), who’s become a camp follower of SDS and Black Panther types.
Through it all, Forrest retains his love and idealized image of Jenny. She, however, indulges in the try-it-all excesses of the era, becoming a stripper, hippie, activist, druggie and more. Jenny keeps popping into Forrest’s life at intervals, never quite ready to settle for his unquestioning love until it’s almost too late.
Meanwhile, Forrest’s eventful life comes to embrace a stint as a champ ping-pong player, a down-and-out period with Lt. Dan in New York, a hilarious key role in the Watergate saga, amazing success as a shrimp boat captain, the resumption of his life as a runner, which sees him become a sort of mystical guru figure to the jogging set, and finally the unexpected arrival of fatherhood.
In covering so much ground, literally and figuratively, Eric Roth’s intelligently structured, finely tuned screenplay also serves up innumerable cultural touchstones that will have most viewers in the 30-50 age range melting in recognition. Main themes here have to do with the impulse to recapture the past; the wish to return to one’s childhood, or at least the site of it; the desire to fulfill your life with your original true love; the need to refashion the simple feeling of homeafter many aimless years; and assuming the responsibilities of parenthood after much delay.
At just short of 2 1/2 hours, pic is a bit indulgent, long and excessive at times, but this is more than compensated for by its humor and sharp-witted storytelling. For the minority of nay-sayers the film will encounter, pic’s key problem will be its preoccupation with lost innocence and certain other self-centered hang-ups.
Pic is weakest in the Forrest-Jenny relationship; the characters have nothing but their childhood connection going for them. Changes in Jenny’s life are mostly marked by the alterations to Wright’s coiffure and costumes, and the actress has little to play until the late moments.
On the other hand, Gump reps another career triumph for Hanks after his Oscar turn. Affecting a Southern drawl and affable sweetness, the actor draws the viewer close to his curious character immediately, and manages to keep one intrigued and amused throughout. His comic timing is as sharp as ever, even when interacting with real-life figures in docu footage, and his malleable physicality contributes a great deal to the intermittent hilarity.
In the key supporting roles, Sinise and Williamson are excellent, while Field pops up as Forrest’s loving mom at the beginning and near the end.
Zemeckis’ direction is supple, and in this instance he has well balanced his long-term interest in technical matters with concern over performance and content. From the extraordinary, descending opening shot on through a vivid ground-level Vietnam firestorm and the documentary facsimiles, the film is a superior example of Hollywood craftsmanship, with outstanding contributions from lenser Don Burgess, production designer Rick Carter, costume designer Joanna Johnston and numerous special-effects hands.
The film has been very well worked out on all levels, and manages the difficult feat of being an intimate, even delicate tale played with an appealingly light touch against an epic backdrop.