I always thought Forrest Gump’s signature quote never made any sense. “Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.” Of course you know what you’re gonna get, the flavours are listed on the back of the box. This minor plot hole aside, I love all the flavours that are included in Robert Zemeckis’ 1994 highlight reel of all the major American events from the 1950s through the early 1980s. Through the eyes of simpleton Forrest (Tom Hanks) we see everything from the civil rights’ movement to Vietnam and even the rise of Apple Inc. And then there is the soundtrack. Two albums of pure goodness with artist like Elvis Presley, The Doors, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Simon & Garfunkel.
As Forrest Gump covers plenty of events that happened before I was born but that happened during my parents’ lifetime, they were of course the perfect target audience for the movie. It eventually ended up in our ever-growing VHS tape collection we were accumulating while living in South America in the late 90s. My brother and I were the ones who usually added to the collection, but I believe my parents bought that particular tape thinking this could be a film the whole family would enjoy. They were right and eventually we would end up enjoying the soundtrack together as well. Not surprisingly, I also got to watch the movie during an American History class. Forrest Gump may be a fictional character, but the characters he meets and the events he witnesses are most definitely not.
One of the things that make the movie work is how simple Forrest is compared to the events he witnesses. As a young man in 1950s Alabama he had to endure bullying because of his low IQ. A specialist explains to his loving mother (Sally Field) that Forrest is exactly three points below average, but she would do everything she could to make sure her son would have a good life. Growing up he made up for his lack of intelligence with physical stamina. It turns out running away from bullies can make for some good leg muscles, catching the attention of the local football team. He’s not smart, but give Forrest the ball and he is unstoppable. Of course you have to remember to tell him to stop otherwise he will run out of the stadium.
Football leads to recruitment in the United States army and a deployment to Vietnam where Forrest meets his new best friend Bubba (Mykelti Williamson), a shrimp conaisseur, and his heroic superior, Lieutenant Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise). Sinise would later use the character’s name for his band, which frequently performs for U.S troops. After a deadly battle that leads to months of recovery, Forrest once again finds athletic success with ping-pong, a game so simple any idiot could do it. Seeing Forrest become a champion of the game, it brought me down a peg since I was never that good at ping-pong. Apparently sometimes any idiot is a better athlete than a man of average intelligence.
Throughout his many travels and brushes with history, Forrest stays in contact with Jenny (Robin Wright), his childhood friend and the love of his life. Their relationship truly is the emotional core of the movie. Whether he is trudging through the jungles of Vietnam, shaking hands with the president, manning a shrimp boat, or jogging through the roads of America, beautiful Jenny is always on Forrest’s mind. They chose separate paths, with him joining the army and her becoming a hippie, but Forrest never gives up on them. He is not smart, but smart enough to know he is in love.
In addition to great performances by Hanks as the good-hearted Forrest and Sinise as the embittered Lt. Dan, the movie was at the time astounding for its effect. Hanks was seamlessly blended into archival footage, shaking hands with Richard Nixon and appearing on TV alongside John Lennon. The war section of the story is also impressive for its effects and graphic violence, with Lt. Dan losing both his legs. One of my history teachers once joked they chopped off Gary Sinise’s legs and reattached them after the movie, but really they just covered them with blue material and removed them digitally. No actor would ever suffer that much for his art.
In the years since its release, Forrest Gump has proven divisive with some calling it a classic while others see it as melodramatic and cheesy. It is at times overly optimistic, but there are at least three scenes I would dare you to watch without getting a little misty eyed. I also can’t think of a more entertaining and uplifting way of looking at three decades of American history. It certainly beats reading a history book and taking notes. Plus, you have that soundtrack.