Thursday, January 8, 2015

AFI Top 100: #76 "Forrest Gump"

Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994)

"This movie is bizarre." That was the final thought of the one person in our AFI Top 100 movie group who actually hadn't seen the #76 film on the list, Forrest Gump. It's been 20 years since this Robert Zemeckis-directed story won the Oscar for Best Picture, and over the years, I've seen quite a bit of contention rise up around it. I remember in the nineties, I was hard-pressed to find someoneanyonewho truly hated this movie. Hate is such a strong word, and this movie is just too harmless. Maybe we were all less cynical then. I know I was.

The plot, for those who don't know, is a whimsical recount of the last half of the 20th century through the eyes of a fictional simpleton named Forrest Gump (played by the forever brilliant Tom Hanks). Forrest has below-average intelligence, but his mama (Sally Field) raised him to respect everyone and shrug off nay-sayers, so he grows up happy as a clam.

While the story weaves Forrest through every major event from the '50s through the '90s (Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, assassinations, Watergate, AIDS) with the convenient suggestion he somehow played a significant role in most of them, there is only one focus in the eyes of Forrest Gump: reunite with his one childhood friend and love of his life, Jenny (Robin Wright).

Back to the "bizarre" statement. It's true, this movie is truly odd. It's delightful in many ways, with its earnestness so thick, it almost chokes you. Forrest is likable and endearing, which helps you get past the eye rolling when the movie suggests Elvis Presley stole his signature "Hound Dog" moves from little Forrest when he was a no one renting a room in the Gump house. There's a lot of moments like that, where you go "Oh god, what really?" (the bumper stickers, anyone?)... but then the movie moves on and pays it no mind, because Forrest doesn't pay it much mind.

Most of Forrest's story happens accidentally, where he finds himself somewhere because someone suggested he should go and so he does and then he's suddenly chest deep in a Vietnamese river. Or Captain of a shrimping boat. Or you know, a major investor in Apple Computers. Zemeckis doesn't shy away from the fantasy that is Forrest Gump and the life he lives. It's clear what kind of movie you're about to watch the moment you follow that whisping white feather to Forrest seated at the bus stop. His narration is stunningly written and executed without the merest bit of irony by Hanks. Even if you walk away thinking this movie absurd, it's hard to argue with a talent like his.

My biggest complaint is that two of the four characters Forrest cares most about are remarkably 2-dimensional. Jenny and his shrimp-obsessed, platoon-mate Bubba have a strong hold over Forrest without having that same power over the audience. Jenny is troubled, which is impossible not to see, yet we understand why Forrest doesn't. Liking Forrest so much makes us dislike Jenny all the more, and I wish that wasn't the case. She's self-serving, and frankly, Forrest could do better, but that's not for me to decide now, is it?

Bubba is goofy and funny, sure, but he is likely the least dynamic character on screen. Lt. Dan, however? Don't even get me started. Gary Sinise is a bonafide scene-stealer.

However bizarre, I adore this movie. It pulls a lot of punches, and I sort of have to respect that. I could dock it points because the FX on old Presidential footage (making their mouths say something they didn't) is pretty shoddy, but then I remember that of course it's shoddy. It was 1994. I love movies that have a lot of heart, and this one is like one big bear hug. I still shed tears, and most of our movie group was welling up alongside me, even if we felt kinda silly.

The history lover in me also gets a kick out of seeing all those events from our textbooks play out in an unconventional way. It astounds me the number of quotes from this script that have become such a part of our everyday lexicon, the film sometimes feels like its a parody of itselfbut that, to me, is an indicator of its relevance in American cinema. I believe this movie is on this list to stay, and while it may not rise too far in the ranks, I think its place is damn well secure.

Rating:  ★★★★ / 5 stars

And with that, we're a quarter of the way done! Check back next week for #75, In the Heat of the Night  or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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