It’s the film that spawned the oft-quoted lines “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get” and “Stupid is as stupid does.” At the time of the film’s release, I rued the fact that my name was Jenny because my co-workers would incessantly say “Me and Jenny is like peas and carrots.” Some of the lines in the film, silly though they may seem, might have suggested an equally silly film, but Robert Zemekis’ film is far from silly. It’s touching, poignant, funny, heart-warming, sad and brilliant. It’s a smart and thoughtful piece of storytelling with a truly remarkable lead character portrayed inspiringly by Tom Hanks.
There’s never been a character like Forrest Gump in a movie before. Even Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond in Rain Man, with his remarkable memory and his lightening fast math skills, doesn’t quite achieve the same marvels that Forrest does. His life and the people he meets and the experiences he has are pretty profound. Zemekis’ vivid direction with its tour of American history, its use of archived footage and its dazzling special effects further enhance the story. Every element fits together in this remarkable film about an extraordinary and unlikely American hero touched with great talent despite his below average intelligence and his unwavering capacity for hope.
Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) is an idiot-savant with an IQ around 75 who somehow manages to be present at nearly every major event in American history between the 1950s and the 1980s. His remarkable life journey begins when he’s bullied as a young boy for wearing braces on his legs. The bullies throw rocks at Forrest and his childhood friend, Jenny, urges him to run away. Forrest does as Jenny suggests and runs and runs until his leg braces break apart and fall off his legs. It turns out that Forrest can run like the wind. That’s how he lands a college football scholarship later on as a teenager and how, as a soldier in Vietnam after graduation, he saves many men in his platoon by carrying and running with them away from an ambush of bombs for which he’s awarded the Medal of Honor.
Forrest later becomes a Ping-Pong champion and then a shrimp boat captain. He buys shares in a new “fruit company” called Apple Computer and makes millions. He decides one day to run and to keep on running and gains a huge following when he runs across America. During his run, he inadvertently coins the popular bumper sticker phrase “Shit Happens.”
Zemekis uses computerized special effects to incorporate Forrest into historic situations with the actual historical figures that were present during specific moments in history. He stands next to the schoolhouse door with George Wallace, he unexpectedly addresses an anti-war rally on the Mall in Washington, he shows his war wound to President Lyndon B. Johnson, he teaches Elvis how to shake his hips, he appears on the Dick Cavett show with John Lennon, he visits the White House three times and he meets President Richard Nixon who invites his to stay at the Watergate Hotel where Forrest inadvertently helps to expose the Watergate scandal. Zemekis carefully selects the TV clips, dubs the voices so precisely and incorporates Forrest into the archived footage so seamlessly that you can’t help but rub your eyes because it all looks so astoundingly real.
For all of its visual marvels, the film’s greatest achievement is Forrest. He’s sincere and completely without guile with a childlike innocence devoid of cynicism or pessimism. Forrest doesn’t understand everything that happens to him, but he understands what he needs to. He’s clever in his own right, takes things exactly for what they are and he understands everything that is important about death and about love. He says things like, “Mama always said dying was a part of life. I sure wish it wasn't” and “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” He’s uncorrupted, decent, honest and nice and his story shows us what can happen when limitations are overcome and when someone seizes the opportunities that chance unexpectedly presents. Forrest is a special man in a magical movie that I never grow tired of watching.