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Forrest Gump, Our National Folk Zero

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 14, 1994

The sap is rising in America, and his name is Forrest Gump.

In this country, there's nothing harder to argue with than success, and, to nearly everyone's surprise, "Forrest Gump" has become a success that goes beyond the film's soaring box office numbers. But few things need to be challenged more fiercely than this gentle, defiantly peculiar account of an idiot pilgrim's progress through three decades of American history.

Stiff as a pole with his hair cut military short and his shirt buttoned up to his Adam's apple, Forrest Gump has become the pop-culture hero of the '90s. He's emerged as an Everyman symbol of all things to all people, moving from movie reviews to the op-ed pages, where essayists and critics have compared him to everyone from Huck Finn to "Harvey's" Elwood P. Dowd.

To some, Gump, like Shakespeare's fools, is a figure of sanity in an insane world; to others, he marks a return to decency and basic family values. His own inventor, novelist Winston Groom, lumps him in with Steinbeck's Lennie, Faulkner's Benjy and "that Doy-chee-eveskie guy's idiot."

But, despite the fictional Alabama simpleton's ability to be whatever his beholder wants him to be, Gump is none of these things. In truth -- and this is what makes him such a scary phenomenon -- he is hardly anything at all.

The harder you look at Gump, the less there is to see. He's the David Souter of movie heroes. Aside from his mother's folksy aphorisms, Gump believes in nothing and stands for nothing. Though he plays football and Ping-Pong, he's not interested in sports; though he meets three presidents, he holds no political views. He is not driven by money or sex or the need to do good. He is the closest thing America has yet produced to a man without qualities.

What's strange is that no one seems to be bothered by this. Traditionally, our notion of heroism involves deliberate action. Our heroes choose to do brave things or endure hardships. But when Gump behaves heroically -- as he does in Vietnam where he rescues half his unit and wins the Congressional Medal of Honor -- he does so almost by accident. Because he doesn't quite know what's going on.

Gump moves through his entire life without choosing anything. His existence is almost completely dictated by happenstance and dumb luck. Gump is the antithesis of Job -- success falls at his feet, like the feather that drifts to the ground at the opening and close of the film. When his shrimping business is about to fail, God steps in and bails him out with a hurricane. Grump just happens to become an All-American, a goodwill ambassador and a "gazillionaire" -- all without effort or pain.

Somehow, though, Gump is the perfect embodiment of this summer of O.J.'s fall from grace and Whitewater, the political scandal with no there there. As a hero, he comes along at a time when the concept of heroism itself seems deeply compromised if not extinct. In last year's "Last Action Hero," an exhausted Arnold Schwarzenegger threw his leg over the ledge of a building and wearily complained, "This hero stuff has its limits." He was right: The hero in movies seems to be dying of blandness. In films such as "Speed," "Blown Away" and "In the Line of Fire," it's the villains who get all the good lines.

The hero's weariness is simply the fatigue of being the good guy. The character who does things is no longer heroic. As Clinton's experience has proved, doing things is polarizing and controversial. It opens the door for attack and low approval ratings. Better to do nothing and play it safe. Like Bob Dole.

"Gump," it seems, suggests that a good guy need not do anything. If Arnold was the "Last Action Hero," Gump is the "First Non-Action Hero."

While the film doesn't explicitly state that life would be altogether easier if one were stupid, it does leave the impression that, in general, thinking is grossly overrated and, in the long run, painful, and that the wise man is better off living his life according to a Whitman's Sampler of simplistic homilies.

And it's true that there is something attractive about a character who isn't tangled up in the endless complexities of the modern world. Gump is free of the anxieties of deliberation and reflection. The question is whether this is actually freedom or the abdication of an essential aspect of being grown-up and alive.

One of the problems with "Forrest Gump" is that it doesn't seem to place much value on experience. In Groom's novel, Gump is quite prodigious sexually; once Jenny even leaves him because he has cheated on her. But Robert Zemekis and Eric Roth -- the film's director and writer -- have been careful to erase all traces of sexuality from their hero's personality. When Jenny first comes on to him in college, it makes him feel "dizzy." And even when the couple finally consummate their relationship, Jenny initiates the encounter and Gump is left, in effect, with his purity intact.

The character Jenny illustrates the filmmakers' bunker mentality toward life. An abused child who grew up searching, mostly in the wrong places, for some sort of meaning and contentment, she is a tortured soul buffeted by the social storms of her day. She throws herself into every new social craze only to come away scarred and disillusioned.

Unlike Jenny, Gump remains above the normal drives -- and therefore the normal taints -- of the average adult. This places him beyond childlike, beyond even the child-in-a-man's body that Tom Hanks played in "Big." He becomes, in effect, a holy man or a saint. But though Gump suggests soulfulness and depth, the filmmakers poke fun at those who see Gump as a sage. In their view, a holy fool is just another of the things that Gump is not.

Indifferent to History
Though it operates on the stage of historical events, "Forrest Gump" doesn't seem to have any real interest in history. Or for that matter, any real point of view. Everything from Elvis to Vietnam to Squeaky Fromme registers as a blip on the film's satiric radar, only to quickly and inconsequently vanish from sight. In the world according to Gump, history is as weightless as Gump himself.

Gump brushes up against real-life events, reducing them to jokes. At the University of Alabama, he comes upon a crowd that's gathered to watch as Gov. George Wallace attempts to keep several black students from attending classes. The scene at the school is tense, with Wallace glowering fiercely at the front door of the building. But Gump -- who has been injected into actual footage of the event by the filmmakers -- is oblivious to the import of the moment and, slipping around behind Wallace, goosenecks over the governor's shoulder like a fan trying to get a better view at a ballgame.

Though later Gump enters more directly into the historic moment by picking up a notebook dropped by one of the black students, his presence on the scene remains disturbingly neutral. As an individual, he has no interest whatsoever in what is happening around him at this or any other moment in time. He's not oblivious, exactly, just indifferent, unmoved and unchanged.

The film's use of actual events, like the assassinations of the Kennedys or the attempts on Ford and Reagan, pushes buttons in the audience that aren't attached to anything in the movie. They're just there, dropped in to mark the passage of time, but they contribute a feeling of despair that the movie isn't prepared to deal with. After Gump's encounter with President Kennedy -- which ends with his now-famous "I gotta pee" line -- Gump blandly appraises the president, then adds that, "For no particular reason, somebody shot that nice young president while he was riding in his car."

This isn't just idiotic, it's coarse and insulting. "Gump's" view of history is bumper-sticker fodder -- it just happens. But history doesn't just happen; history is made. And as seductive as the notion might be that there are "no particular reasons" for such traumas as the murder of a president, the opposite is true. Events do not occur in a vacuum, but as a result of all kinds of forces in society. "Gump" lets us off the hook by suggesting that we needn't bother ourselves with attempting to make sense of the world. In the face of tough questions and moral ambiguity, it lays down a "Don't Worry, Be Happy" riff.

The strange thing here is that people who normally consider themselves too sophisticated for such a banal "feel good" message are being suckered by the picture's savvy packaging and swallowing it whole. They don't seem to notice -- or don't care -- that Gump doesn't direct his life in the way that most characters do and has no real motives or drives or psychology. When Gump asks Jenny to marry him, declaring, "I'm not a smart man, but I know what love is," they're happy to believe him even though there's nothing in the movie to suggest his statement is true.

There's a lot of talk in the film about finding one's destiny, but in the end, the movie punts on the whole issue. Standing over his wife's grave, Gump can't decide whether we make our own destinies or are blown about by random fate. "Maybe it's both," he muses.

It would be nice if, just this once, Gump could actually make up his mind about something. That would have meant that life made some impression on him; that he had taken some meaning out of Jenny's suffering and learned from experience. Jenny was out in the world, testing herself and risking failure. She may be a tragic figure, but Jenny was immersed in her life in a way that Gump could never be -- not because of his lack of intelligence but because of the filmmakers' determination to turn him into a universally likable folk hero. Jenny, not Gump, is the film's bravest character. Compared with her, Gump is a real zero.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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