Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cultivating 'Forrest'

Flashy footage of real events notwithstanding, the real historical vision in Gump is hard to find -- but it's there

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

Philadelphia was a complete triumph for Tom Hanks, part of a string of unbroken critical and commercial successes, and one that culminated in his first Academy Award for Best Actor in 1994. What was even more remarkable that he followed it up with Forrest Gump (1994), one of the most commercially successful movies of all time, and one for which he was paid with 8% of gross receipts (estimated to be many tens of millions of dollars).  Hanks also scored a second Oscar for Best Actor – one of only two serial winners (the other was Spencer Tracy). The one-two punch of Philadelphia and Forrest Gump – a combination all the more powerful for Hanks’s markedly different performances – completed his transformation from promising-but-wobbly journeyman actor to a Hollywood phenomenon.
This does not mean Forrest Gump is a good movie.  Actually, while it would be hard to say it is anything but expertly made – the special effects, which show Hanks’s title character spliced into any one of a number of historical scenarios – was positively amazing in the age before Photoshop – there are plenty of reasons to at least regard it with skepticism.
A good place to begin is the source material, Winston Groom’s 1986 novel of the same name. The filmmakers took the core of the novel for their plot: mentally handicapped mid-century Alabama man stumbles into a series of famous historical moments while pining away for his childhood sweetheart. But in an unusual reversal from what one typically expects, Forrest Gump is a far more nuanced character on the screen than on the page. Even with a deadpan expression, Hanks manages to endow the character with more psychological complexity than Groom does. Screenwriter Eric Roth (and presumably uncredited collaborators) took the opening line, “Bein’ an idiot is no box of chocolates,” and refashioned it into the still trite, but more resonant, “Mama always said life is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.” The signature line of the novel is variations on “I am tryin to do the right thing.” But “stupid is as stupid does” has a lot more zing. Both versions note that Forrest’s name, derived from Klu Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, was given by him by his mother (played in the movie by Sally Field) as a cautionary tale, but the movie hits this irony more cleanly. The filmmakers took a lot of incidents from the book and incorporated them into the movie, but left others, like Forrest’s stint as a professional wrestler, behind. (Would have liked to see him rescue Chairman Mao from drowning, though.) And they dropped his sweetheart marrying another man in favor of having the joylessly sybaritic, but unmarried, Jenny Curran (Robin Wright), who dies of AIDS, more dramatic choice that makes the story more relevant even as it somehow makes her a more pure character. They also replaced the hulking figure of the novel and clapping braces on his legs that he only sheds when fleeing bullies – hence Jenny’s famous line, “Run, Forrest Run!” With the proper support, literal and figurative, the film suggests, weak children can still make strong adults. So it is that Sally Field’s mama Gump resorts to sexual barter so that Gump can attend the local public school. The overall effect of these changes makes the movie a more deft, but also more sentimental, story.
I was teaching freshman composition at Harvard at the time Forrest Gump came out, and at one point included it on a list students could write comparative essays about. But I could never resist offering my own one line review: “This is a movie a fascist would love.” I’d explain that Forrest is a man who simply does what he’s told, an utterly passive figure who makes no real contribution to the world historical events – the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Watergate, Alabama football under Bear Bryant, et. al. – with which he accidentally intersects, like the allegorical feather in the wind, an image that opens and closes the movie. This effect is reinforced by the filmmakers’ attempt to strive for ideological balance. Forrest braves an angry crowd of racists to pick up the dropped books of an African American student at the University of Alabama, but the hippies with which Jenny throws in her lot come off as a narcissistic, even hypocritical bunch. Forrest stumbles his way to the microphone at a war protest at the Lincoln Memorial while wearing his army uniform, but the power gets cut so that no one can hear what he says – a moot point once he spots Jenny in the crowd and splashes his way into the reflecting pool. Though drenched in the recent history of the United States, the movie is a dispiriting experience for anyone who considers the social upheavals of the late twentieth century as more than a set of costume changes in a movie that floats from one scenario to another.
It was my oldest son, on the cusp of taking freshman composition himself, who forced me to revise my view of Forrest Gump. He pointed out that Forrest does not only observe, but acts, and has a specific contribution to make in the various institutional settings in which he finds himself: his speed. However dull-witted, his natural physical quickness allows him to make important contributions as a kick returner for the Crimson Tide; to win the Medal of Honor rescuing his comrades in Vietnam; to go on a global good-will tour as a ping pong champion, and to inspire a legion of followers when he takes up cross-country running. His speed is both comic and moving when he senses, not always accurately, any harm to Jenny, the only time he resorts to physical force (and again, this is something that Hanks shows better than Groom tells).
This is an important point. But it should also be noted that Forrest lacks any particular feeling or loyalty for the various institutions he joins – educational, military, commercial – as institutions. In all cases, he comes and he goes. His loyalties – to Jenny, who he meets on a school bus; to Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), his former commanding officer; his late comrade, Bubba (Mykelti Williamson), in whose name he starts a shrimping business – are personal. On the other hand, such connections are the foundation of any abstract sense of institutional loyalty, and abstraction is certainly not Forrest’s strong suit. Moreover, one can begin to appreciate what institutions do for Forrest when one considers that Jenny’s tragic fate can be explained precisely by their absence. She’s rootless. And that begins with the institution of the family, where in the movie it is strongly hinted that Jenny is a victim of abuse at hands of her father and effectively spends her life running away, including running away from the one man who can heal that psychic wound. In an ironic act of compassion, Forrest later sees to it that her house is torn down. Perhaps there is a historiographic argument embedded in the movie after all: Jenny’s rebellion is a dead end because she lacked functional social institutions into which to channel any hope for change, instead drifting in and out of casual relationships, personal as well as collective. Forrest may have been dim-witted. But he always had a home. And he always had some other place, a real community, to join. Institutional communities have limits. But it’s only within limits that possibilities can take shape.

Next: Apollo 13 and Toy Story