A Look Back: Forrest Gump

After several Academy Award shows that left me seriously scratching my head, I developed a theory (probably common sense) that the actors most likely to win in the Best category were ones who portrayed someone the viewer would most like to go out and have a drink with – not too intellectual, but still a decent guy. Now there are exceptions – particularly if someone comes along and chills us to the core with their portrayal of a psychopath – but in general, it’s the nice guys who finish first on the big screen. This may partly why Tom Hanks won a Best Actor Oscar for “Forrest Gump” in ’94 (based on the novel by Winston Groom), and also because the Academy has a soft spot for characters with disabilities. (And of course, because Tom did a great job.) The eponymous Forrest is mentally challenged, but, although lacking the autistic savant skills of his book counterpart, manages to be present at, and alter the course of a great many events of the twentieth century. Indeed the audience is put right away in the position of having a drink with Tom, so to speak, as he spends most of the movie recounting his life story to various passers-by at a bus stop, which helps engage them right away in the narrative.

“Forrest Gump” begins with the sight of a white feather lazily drifting downward toward the hero. A white feather is traditionally the sign of a coward, but since Tom really does not fit the definition of a coward, perhaps the intention is more Emily Dickinson – “hope is the thing with feathers,” and all that. Certainly, Tom’s mother (Sally Field) is determined that her son’s limitations not hold him back from living a full life, starting with elementary school in the fifties, in which she manages to get the principal to admit Young Tom to a regular class. On his first day of school, he meets a girl, Jenny, (played by Robin Wright as an adult), with whom he becomes smitten and who he cannot forget throughout all his adventures later in life. Now Jenny has always struck me as kind of a wuss – you’d think she could at least chuck something at the bullies taunting Young Tom rather than just whining at him to “run fast,” but that turns out to have a silver lining because he develops a gift for running fast – and once he does it holding a football, wins a scholarship to the University of Alabama – where he eventually meets President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy is just one of several presidents whose paths Tom will cross – others include Lyndon B. Johnson and there’s also a nod to Watergate and Richard Nixon. But first, Tom has to get through the turbulent sixties.

So cue “Fortunate Son,” which seems to be one of the go-to songs for Vietnam movie montages, and Tom is off to basic training where he makes a friend (Mykelti Willliamson), who dreams of working on a shrimp boat once war is over. Their platoon leader is “Lieutenant Dan” (Gary Sinise) who is later badly injured but survives (Mykelti is not as lucky). When Tom returns home, he winds up co-starting a shrimp boat company, but not before getting the funding after discovering he has an uncanny talent for Ping-Pong. He also dabbles in long distance running, invents a famous logo, and invests in a software company (Apple) that turns out to be fantastically profitable. Eventually, he meets back up with Robin and discovers that they have a son (Haley Joel Osment) who is not mentally-challenged, although Robin turns out to be terminally ill. The movie ends with Haley going off on his first day of school under the proud gaze of Tom and so comes full circle. Personally, I think the movie might have been more interesting if they’d stuck in some of omitted adventures (such as Tom’s stint as an astronaut) and made Tom’s character less “innocent,” but the movie makers knew what they were doing, and hence a raft of Oscars became theirs at the Academy Awards for that year.


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