Sunday, November 1, 2009


“Back to the Future” trilogy director Robert Zemeckis surpassed himself in ways that he probably never imagined when he made “Forrest Gump.” Clocking in at two hours and forty minutes, this bittersweet PG-13 rated comedy about the epic misadventures of a slow-witted dolt from rural Alabama with a below-average I.Q. who lives through several milestone events in the 1960s received the Oscar for Best Picture of 1994. Not only did Zemeckis earn a Best Director Oscar, but also Tom Hanks’ took home the Academy statuette for Best Actor with his insightful, down-to-earth thesping. Forrest Gump is not the brightest bulb in the grid, but Hanks conveys this quality without ever stooping to histrionics. Above all, Hanks delivers a performance that has innocence and dignity intertwined. Moreover, “Forrest Gump” (**** out of ****)qualifies as Hanks’ best film.

“Forrest Gump” unfolds in Savannah, Georgia, as the eponymous character narrates the story of his life in a number of flashbacks. Indeed, two-thirds of the action takes place with Forrest on the bench relating his exploits to other people waiting for their bus. Zemeckis’ attention to details including the use of “People” magazine that the first woman is seen reading on the bench next to Forrest. The first time that we see young Forrest, he has just been fitted with a pair of leg braces at the doctor’s office while his mother (Sally Fields of “Norma Ray”) watches. She is determined to see to it that father-less Forrest gets to live as normal a life as possible. The school principal (Sam Anderson of “La Bamba”) fails to convince her that Forrest’s low I.Q. of 75 means that he should not attend regular school classes. Despite Forrest’s intellectual’s shortcomings, Mrs. Gump persuades the principal to permit Forrest to enroll in normal classes by having loud, noisy sex with him. The next time that we see young Forrest (newcomer Michael Humphreys) he hesitates about climbing aboard the school bus because he doesn’t know the bus driver and has been warned by his mother not to accept rides from strangers. The driver and Forrest introduce themselves to each other and he steps aboard because they are now no longer strangers. Forrest meets his first best friend Jenny Curran when she is the only student riding the bus who will let him sit beside her. Later, Forrest meets his second best friend on his way to military boot camp when Bubba makes room for him to sit beside him after others have turned him away.

Jenny and Forrest cultivate their friendship to the point that other students decide to attack Forrest. Initially, these obnoxious kids throw rocks at Forrest while he is walking home with Jenny. “Run, Forrest, run,” screams Jenny to our hero as the kids hurl more rocks and pursue him on their bicycles. Forrest takes off running and his braces disintegrate and he breaks into a loping stride that the kids on their bikes cannot match. The first chronological transition from young Forrest to Tom Hanks as Forrest occurs when the same kids—only older—attack Forrest and Jenny (Robin Wright of “The Princess Bride”) and try to run him down in their pick-up truck. Again, Forrest outruns them and scrambles through a practice scrimmage that Alabama football coach Bear Bryant (Sonny Shroyer of “Gator”) is holding. Forrest winds up in college, joins the football and scores touchdowns for the Alabama Crimson Tide. Forrest proves to be a sensation for the Tide and football is the first sport that he makes a name for himself. Later, he becomes a ping-pong ball champion in second-half of this witty spectacle. During his stay at Alabama, Forrest is exposed to the famous stance in the doorway by real-life Alabama governor George Wallace when the University of Alabama was integrated by African-American students. As one of the black students is entering the school, she drops a book and Forrest retrieves it on camera. Later, Forrest visits the White House, guzzles 15 Dr. Pepper sodas—his favorite soft drink--and gets to shake hands with the real President John F. Kennedy. When Kennedy asks him how he feels, Forrest tells him that he has to pee.

Meanwhile, Jenny has grown up, left her abusive father to live with another person, and ends up in an all-girls’ school. Forrest shows up and beats up Jenny’s date because he thinks that the guy is getting rough with her. Jenny gives Forrest his first sexual experience. She cups his hand over her breast and he blows a gasket while Jenny’s roommate—apparently asleep—listens in horror as Forrest admits that he has messed up the roommate’s bathrobe. Jenny informs Forrest that she wants to become a folk singer like her idol Joan Baez. Forrest joins the U.S. Army and takes a furlough to Memphis, Tennessee, to see Jenny perform folk songs on stage. Forrest knows that Jenny got expelled from her college for posing nude in a ‘Girls of the South’ issue of Playboy magazine, but he isn’t prepared for what he sees when she performs in the nude singing a Bob Dylan song. When a spectator heckles Jenny, Forrest comes to her rescue.

In the military, Forrest meets his second best friend, Private Benjamin Buford 'Bubba' Blue (Mykelti Williamson of “Waiting to Exhale”) and Bubba regales Forrest throughout boot camp with stories about his own life and the part that shrimp has played in it. Indeed, shrimp is the food is mentioned frequently than any other kind of food in "Forrest Gump.” Bubba and Forrest are shipped off to Vietnam where they learn not to salute their commanding officer, Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise of “Of Mice and Men”), because he tells them that the Viet Cong will shoot him. The Viet Cong surprise Lt. Dan and his platoon during an offensive and confusion reigns as U.S. troops scramble for cover. Lt. Dan orders Forrest to run and true to his character, Forrest takes off hoofing it through the jungle and gets out of harm’s way before he realizes that he must go back for Bubba. Along the way, Forrest saves several of his comrades, including Lt. Dan who has been wounded. Forrest retrieves Bubba in the nick of time as the Air Force swoop in to napalm the enemy. Unfortunately, Bubba dies tragically in combat and his last words to Forrest are appropriately enough, "I just want to go home." Forrest catches some lead in his rear end and spends his time in the hospital on his belly, with bandages on his buttocks. During his medical confinement, Forrest indulges himself in his favorite snack—all the ice cream that he can eat. Once our hero recovers from his wound, he learns how to play ping-pong and becomes a champion.

Irony pervades “Forrest Gump.” Although he possesses the lowest I.Q. of everybody, Forrest discovers the true meaning of life, survives the horrors of combat, and emerges from Vietnam as well as the everyday hassle of life was the smartest character. Everybody from start to finish wants to pigeonhole Forrest Gump from the school principal to Lt. Dan, but Forrest surprises everybody in the long run. The military awards Forrest the Congressional Medal of Honor for his daring exploits in saving so many of his fellow soldiers during the Viet Cong ambush. On the commentary track, Zemeckis states that Jenny is a metaphor for America searching for itself. She represents the failure that so many people in America during the 1960s experienced. Eventually, Forrest runs into Jenny again when he attends a peace rally at the Washington, D.C., monument and they splash through the refractory pool into each others arms. Jenny takes up residence with Forrest after a particularly rough episode in her life, but she disappoints Forrest by leaving him without warning. The only way that Forrest can deal with his overwhelming grief is to hit the road running again and he jogs across America and becomes a celebrity. As the film enters its final quarter, we learn that Forrest has been sitting on the bench awaiting the right bus so that he can catch it and ride it to Jenny’s apartment. The woman sitting next to him informs him that Jenny’s apartment is located a mere six blocks away and Forrest takes off running toward it. He learns to his shock that Jenny—who has been working as a waitress--has had a baby, and she has named it Forrest. Initially, Forrest is dumbfounded until Jenny reveals that Forrest is the father. Forrest sits down with his son (Haley Joel Osment of “The Sixth Sense”) and they watch Bert and Ernie on “Sesame Street.”

According to Zemeckis, "The writer, Eric Roth, departed substantially from the book. We flipped the two elements of the book, making the love story primary and the fantastic adventures secondary. Also, the book was cynical and colder than the movie. In the movie, Gump is a completely decent character, always true to his word. He has no agenda and no opinion about anything except Jenny, his mother and God.” Indeed, Zemeckis attributes most of the success of “Forrest Gump” to Roth’s screenplay. Nevertheless, Zemeckis adds several interesting touches to the film. For example, during the Vietnam combat sequences, the Viet Cong enemy are never shown. Zemeckis strives to show everything from Forrest Gump’s perspective and he violates this rule only when he intersperses vignettes of Jenny that Forrest narrates that he could never have known about in the greater scheme of things.

Significantly, the film pioneered some revolutionary techniques, such as inserting a live actor into historic archival footage of important events as well as enabling Oscar nominated actor Gary Sinise to appear convincing as a handicapped Vietnam veteran who has lost both legs in combat. If the structure of “Forrest Gump” is reminiscent of David Fincher’s recent opus “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” this is no surprise because Eric Roth penned scripts for both “Forrest Gump” as well as “Benjamin Button.” Roth got an Oscar for his adaptation of Winston Groom’s novel. Not surprisingly, “Forrest Gump” was awarded Oscars for best visual effects. Interestingly, Paramount Pictures produced this film for $55-million dollars and coined over $600 million dollars from it domestically as well as internationally. “Forrest Gump” was nominated for six other Oscars, including Best Cinematography, Best Make-up, and Best Original Score. Incredibly, John Travolta had the first crack at “Forrest Gump” and later admitted that he made a terrible mistake by passing up this juicy role.

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