Forrest Gump is a bad film. Forrest Gump is the worst film! I’ll even go so far as to say this: Forrest Gump is worse than Crash.1 But it’s also a long film, and so there’s no shortage of things that are really very deeply wrong with it. (The majority of which have already been very thoroughly treated over at The Awl—which if you haven’t read yet what are you even doing here, go, go now.) And it is our duty as thoughtful human beings to ensure that no shortcoming of this terrible, terrible movie—that the Academy awarded with a best picture Oscar—should go undocumented. And sure, yes, there are plenty of bad films! But Piranha 3D never won an Oscar, so, here we are. So let’s talk just a little bit more about how superlatively awful Forrest Gump is.
[Full disclosure: I don’t come at this as a Tarantino partisan. I think Pulp Fiction is a perfectly fine film! It’s just not my cause. But moving on.]
Let’s start at the very beginning, since we’re given a hint of everything that’s so dreadfully wrong with this film right in the early moments when we first learn the genesis of the man named Forrest Gump: his mother named him after Nathan Bedford Forrest, that “great Civil War general” (whom the rest of us, of course, remember as someone very different). Gump then very quickly glosses over the history of “this club called Ku Klux Klan” and these strange men who’d dress up “like a bunch of ghosts or spooks or something.” And this is the viewer’s first taste of the film’s major recurring theme: it’s one long two-and-a-half hour gloss, a gloss that, when presented with the opportunity to say something—anything at all!—about even the most vile, contemptible subject (like the Klan, say), it chooses instead to say nothing. “Momma said that the Forrest part was to remind me that sometimes we all do things that, well, just don’t make no sense.” Those men in that club who dressed their horses up in bedsheets and rained terror down upon generations of southern Blacks: well, they just didn’t make no sense. The major lesson of Gump, it would seem, is that the whole story of America is one that ultimately just doesn’t make no sense.
Now, Forrest is a particularly problematic narrator to be guiding us on this journey. Gump is supposed to be America, in a sense: his very appellation conjures up exactly the same original sin we inscribed into our own national identity; his mother, like the forefathers from which we came, was a racist. But not only has whatever it is he might have to say to us already been sanitized by his permanent state of childlike ignorance (he’s “different,” we’re informed early on), he possesses no wisdom of his own: his telling of the tale is little more than a monotonous application and reapplication of that one axiom that momma always used to say. And when the only tool you have is a box of chocolates, everything looks like… well, everything starts to look like everything else.
And this is Forrest Gump’s greatest fault: that it is a film which postures as a history lesson and yet is decidedly not that. It is actually the exact opposite of that! Because history only happens when an observer becomes conscious of a period’s difference—both with respect to itself and to other times. It also isn’t art, which itself happens only with representation; this is, rather, pure presentation, a second airing—nothing more than a rerun of an old episode of history. It is a film of forgetting. Maybe it’s some kind of closure, some kind of collective, generational healing or something—who knows. But it’s also a thoroughgoing abuse of the history it attempts to tell, because the America it claims to represent isn’t messy; it’s like a polite dinner table conversation where there shall be no talking of politics or religion. The America it depicts is one that’s only to be handled with kid gloves.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” we’re reminded over and over—which is telling, really, that this is the only kernel of wisdom this film would attempt to communicate. Because what of the chocolate in that box? This cherry cordial: was it just by chance that I got it? Or are we to imagine that this almond nougat was predestined? Either way, history as Gump tells it has no human agency, it’s just some ride we’re all on, a thing that happens to us. “Shit happens,” as we’re reminded during his cross-country jog.
Or, as offered in an especially symbolic voiceover from Forrest in the final moments of his “best good friend” Bubba’s life: “If I had known this was the last time me and Bubba was going to talk I would’ve thought of something better to say.” What was it that he said? “Forrest, why’d this happen?” Bubba asked him, his friend who’d just been struck down by a bullet in a foreign land during a war that not many people were very sure why we were still fighting in the first place. “You got shot,” said Forrest, simply.
The finest example of the film’s spinelessness occurs when Forrest accidentally—of course! accidentally! everything is an accident after all—ends up on the National Mall in the middle of an antiwar march and Abbie Hoffman hurries him up to the microphone and says “tell us a little about the war, man” and Forrest says “the war?” and Hoffman clarifies “the war in Viet-fucking-nam” and then Forrest says “well,” and it seems like—at last, finally—this film is actually going to say something about the history it purports to tell, and then Forrest leans into the microphone to talk but right then someone pulls the cable and Forrest is left addressing the subject of his generation’s greatest open wound to an audience that can’t even hear him. And when his mic is finally restored he’d already finished. “And that’s all I have to say about that.” That’s all Forrest Gump was willing to say about the conflict that defined its generation: nothing.
But the glossing doesn’t stop there. The war was a chance to “see a lot of the countryside”; sexual abuse was a case of “a very loving man… always kissing and touching [Jenny] and her sisters.” But maybe the most profoundly awful and offensive treatment of them all is the one given to AIDS, which we only come to learn of through Jenny—safe, newly maternal, thoroughly heterosexual Jenny (there is not a single gay or lesbian character in the whole film; the entire cross-section of America that was terrorized by this disease is criminally ignored). The problem with this is that the last we’d seen Jenny she’d been doing lines in a nightclub; next we see of her she’s got a kid and an auto-immune deficiency. AIDS was Jenny’s punishment for snorting too much coke. And when it killed her she got to keep her perfect skin right up to the end.
Forrest Gump is a trip down memory lane in the same way a stroll through Epcot is a study abroad program. It’s a carefree romp through four decades of history—four very often quite grave decades!—whose gravity never registers for the precociously dim narrator doing the romping. It’s a drama that manages to be neither mimetic nor cathartic, orbiting as it does only ever so distantly from the genuinely traumatic core of its various set pieces. And this is also what makes it such a gutless film, since the wide subjective circumference it maintains doubles as the sufficiently safe emotional distance with which it excuses itself from actually saying anything. It maintains no fidelity to any specific telling of history and rather exists only to catalogue the many historical accidents that merely happened. It doesn’t bear witness to anything at all because in Forrest’s telling there is only a that something happened, never a why. It’s a civics lesson in the form of a box score.
Or alternatively, it’s as if a generation that had just emerged victorious from its first major combat engagement since the one that had torn it apart twenty years previous, a generation that had just taken the White House for the first time a couple years earlier decided it was high time to bury the hatchet. “Momma always said you got to put the past behind you before you can move on,” Forrest tells us. And it’s as if it was agreed that the way to move on was simply to say that some things had happened—a lot of things, actually—but that beyond that the extent of what anyone was willing to declare about any of it all was—to paraphrase from the movie’s soundtrack—well, something had happened here/ what it was ain’t exactly clear.
And then they gave it an Oscar. O lord, kum bay ya.
Early on in the film a young Forrest and Jenny are met at the end of his driveway by a few bullies on bicycles. “Run Forrest, run” Jenny implores him. It’s what he’s told when those bullies return again in high school. It’s what he’s told in college. It’s what he’s told to do in Vietnam. And it’s what he does after Jenny leaves him and he spends three years running across the country and back. “Sir, why are you running?” reporters asked. “Are you doing this for world peace? Are you doing this for women’s rights? Or for the environment? Or for animals? Or for nuclear arms?” The whole bevy of splintered causes lying in the wake of 1968 is offered up. “They just couldn’t believe that somebody would do all that running for no particular reason.”
And then, when Forrest suddenly stops in the middle of a desert southwest highway and turns around to face the pack that’s been tailing him, a man yells out “Quiet! He’s going to say something!”—they’d all, like us, just been waiting for him to say something. Anything at all.
“I’m pretty tired,” was all he had to say. “I think I’ll go home now.” And so an entire generation that was running from it’s own past was able to just go home now, too.
Anyway, that’s all I have to say about that.
1 OK I’m not sure I stand behind this but I’m just trying to communicate exactly how dismally, horrifically, cosmically bad I think Forrest Gump is and no other word communicates that in so few letters better than Crash.
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