You know an actor has achieved supernova status when he gets to play an enchanted idiot, one of those lovably inept simpleton-saints who, because of one very special quality — a quirk of spirit or mind — succeeds in triumphing over the world. As Forrest Gump, a sweet-souled innocent with an IQ of 75, Tom Hanks lowers his voice by an octave and speaks in a courtly Dixie accent. The words come out slowly, almost one at a time, as he delivers such lines as, ”Mama always says life is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re gonna get.” Forrest’s hair is shorter than a ’50s flattop, and he wears a blue-checked shirt buttoned to his Adam’s apple. Sitting straight and tall, he looks and sounds like a very proper young boy on his first day of kindergarten. Yet, like Peter Sellers’ feebleminded gardener in Being There and Dustin Hoffman’s rapid-fire autistic savant in Rain Man, Forrest, who always does exactly what he’s told, is a character things have a way of happening to. Despite (or because of) his trusting, man-child nature, he ends up playing a pivotal role in just about every key moment of American cultural history since the early ’60s.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, creator of intricate cinematic jungle gyms (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Forrest Gump is at once a fable of American innocence and perseverance and a technically amazing pop stunt. It is also glib, shallow, and monotonous, a movie that spends so much time sanctifying its hero that, despite his ”innocence,” he ends up seeming about as vulnerable as Superman. At the beginning of the movie, Forrest is seated on a city bench, where he relates his life story to a series of strangers. Raised by his loving mama (Sally Field) and befriended at an early age by the beautiful, troubled Jenny (played by Hanna R. Hall, and as an adult by Robin Wright), Forrest, as a boy, wears braces on his legs; then, while escaping some bullies, he bursts out of the braces, his muscles suddenly strong and propulsive. The scene is a paradigm of Forrest’s life, which plays out as a series of magical victories.

Thanks to his running talent, Forrest becomes a college football star, an achievement that wins him an invitation to the Oval Office, where he shakes hands with President Kennedy. It’s the first of many such meetings. Through the wonders of computer imagery, the film places Forrest at the center of actual newsreel clips, doctoring each of them (usually with dubbed dialogue) so that they yield a cheeky one-liner or two. He stands next to George Wallace during the latter’s infamous one-man stonewall against desegregation. He bares his butt to Lyndon Johnson and exchanges quips with John Lennon on The Dick Cavett Show. As long as the clips are passing by, the movie has a what’s-next? quality that’s impishly entertaining. Yet one of the scenes stuck in my craw: Do we really want to see an episode as fundamentally ugly as George Wallace’s public display of racism subjected to this kind of beer-commercial flippancy? The Wallace bit is a fair indication of Zemeckis’ method. By reducing each of the clips to simply another Famous Moment, the movie suggests that Forrest, rather than living through history, is triumphing over history, like a slow-brained Ferris Bueller. He’s making the last 30 years feel good again.

Unlike Woody Allen’s prankish Zelig, Forrest Gump isn’t content to remain a high-spirited lark. The film’s tone shifts abruptly when Forrest goes to Vietnam, which is given a full-scale restaging: helicopters whizzing, napalm bursting, soldiers losing their limbs. But since Forrest remains his old resilient self (he runs and runs and saves the lives of nearly everyone in his platoon), we seem to have entered not Vietnam but a Vietnam movie; Forrest’s commanding officer (Gary Sinise) gets his legs blown off and turns into a tormented, wheelchair-bound wreck, and Zemeckis just seems to be doing a riff on Oliver Stone. Forrest Gump takes pains not to enter any territory that hasn’t already been through the pop processor. Back from the war, Forrest appears at a ’60s protest rally (featuring a rambunctious Abbie Hoffman) and confronts stick-figure parodies of hippie self-righteousness. By the time he gets to Watergate, the movie has run out of easy, media-made historic icons. The ’70s pass by in a cliche tableau of disco and drugs.

In metaphorical terms, Forrest is the mythical, clean-cut spirit of the ’50s emerging unscathed from the messiness that came after. Hanks anchors the movie with his all-American charm, yet unlike Being There or Rain Man, Forrest Gump never allows its lead actor to find twinkly depths within his simpleton persona. Forrest is less a character than a tour guide, and Zemeckis, desperate to move us, ends up packing every teary device he can — death, marriage, the joy of parenthood, AIDS, another death — into the last 20 minutes. It’s a shameless display, though not much more dishonest than the rest of the movie, which reduces the tumult of the last few decades to a virtual-reality theme park: a baby-boomer version of Disney’s America. C

Forrest Gump
  • Movie
  • 141 minutes