3.5 out of 5 stars

Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump is bookended by a shot of a white feather. It descends in the opening sequence and soars into the sky at the close. Even for someone who hasn’t seen Forrest Gump, it’s easy to guess that this is a hopeful metaphor. Specifically, it’s an important symbol of who Forrest (Tom Hanks) is and the characteristics that allow him to succeed despite the odds stacked against him.

Following an intellectually impaired man and the adventurous life he leads in the mid-20th-century, Forrest succeeds in his many ventures and vocations because he embraces the opportunities that life throws his way. In the film’s elegant opening sequence, the feather drifts past various people from different social backgrounds before finally coming to rest by Forrest’s foot. Unlike most people, he stops to appreciate this moment of chance, much like he appreciates the simple pleasures in life.

Seated beside a stranger on a bus stop bench, Forrest decides to tell her his entire life story. It quickly becomes clear how he has been able to maintain such a positive attitude, with his mother never letting his intellectual limitations prevent him from pursuing a standard education.

(During his speech, he also references the origins of his name, which stems from the surname of a founding member of the Ku Klux Klan. A bizarre moment that doesn’t connect with anything that came before it, one can only assume a humorous cut-away shot was planned here. This shot likely would have shown the hostile expression of the black woman seated beside Forrest, who already appeared wary of him before he cheerfully divulged the inspiration behind his name.)

Not long after, one of the film’s most iconic and enduring moments occurs when Forrest must outrun his school bullies. This leads him to break free of his leg braces, which he was fitted with to allow him to walk properly. It’s easy to see the parallels here between this scene and how Forrest never lets his intellectual disability define him, but this is also an entertaining and empowering moment in its own right. Just like Forrest’s fondness for running, which ends up saving him in a multitude of ways throughout his life, Zemeckis’s film also maintains a brisk pace throughout its runtime.

In a sense, there’s another parallel here. This movie’s pacing acts as a kind of saving grace for the film, where its long, rambling story could easily feel disjointed and sluggish if it lacked momentum or rhythm. With Zemeckis at the helm, Forrest Gump is a consistently enjoyable experience. Like the strangers seated near him, it’s impossible not to want to learn more about Forrest’s life. While the protagonist might not be a source of boundless depth, his characterisation is simplistic enough to justify the crazy adventures he goes on, but not so crude as to make him one-dimensional.

That said, Forrest’s distinctive Southern drawl and his unique enunciation are laid on a bit thick, as are the film’s constant allusions to his intellectual capacity (or lack thereof). While Forrest Gump is a careful and delicate balancing act of comedy and drama, with a protagonist who could have been depicted far more insultingly if the project were helmed by other creatives, it remains aggressively unsubtle. More often than not, it feels like the skeleton of a great film, restricted by its need to appeal to all audiences.

There’s nothing laugh-out-loud funny about the experience, though there’s something generally sweet and endearing about its protagonist. Forrest Gump could be described as a film of frills, constantly chasing after a new, shiny object to occupy the viewer’s (and Forrest’s) time, whether that’s his stint as a footballer, soldier in the Vietnam War, internationally renowned table tennis player, or fanatic runner. Whatever the case may be, Forrest’s life is a constant wave of success, even if it doesn’t always seem that way to him.

These mini-adventures are fleetingly entertaining, but they’re far from the most essential part of the film. (And for good measure, too, with the dated VFX where Forrest interacts with US Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon possessing an uncanny valley effect.) It’s difficult at times to parse the meaning of many of these scenes beyond them being designed to cheaply evoke nostalgia in viewers. Forrest Gump has nothing insightful to say about these historical moments, blandly depicting specific events as the bumbling Forrest somehow winds up in the frame.

One entertaining example of this is when he picks up a book for Vivian Malone Jones, one of two black students temporarily blocked from entering the University of Alabama at the behest of then-Governor George Wallace. This moment is pretty funny since it’s an intelligent way of conveying how Forrest has no understanding of the symbolic importance of a white person helping out Jones in this context. Other scenes, like his talk show appearance alongside John Lennon on The Dick Cavett Show, or how he inadvertently teaches a young Elvis some of his dance moves, feel like nothing more than lazy attempts at nostalgia.

History is far more than a bland checklist, despite what this film would have you believe. Luckily, a lot of this is merely the veneer of Forrest Gump, with the real heart of Zemeckis’ movie being its protagonist’s relationship with Jenny (Robin Wright) and his outlook on the world around him. I mentioned the film’s opening shot as shedding light on who Forrest is and what his personality signifies. This can be best described by contrasting his outlook with Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), Forrest’s superior during his time spent as a soldier in Vietnam.

Dan’s entire bloodline died in combat, so he believes he must become a martyr like his ancestors were. He is denied this fate by Forrest, who uses his speed and cardio to race through enemy territory and rescue a number of his fellow countrymen, including Dan. Unlike his superior, Forrest can appreciate something as simple and fleeting as a softly descending feather because he’s content enough within himself to embrace life’s simple joys. This could be explained by his reduced intellect, but in some ways this is a good thing, since it reduces his ability to descend into neuroticism, meaning that his self-belief is enormous and there is no ceiling to his talent or ability.

Although interested in pursuing a somewhat ‘normal’ romantic relationship with Jenny, Forrest isn’t looking to emulate anyone around him. He can confidently exist within his niche. In some ways, he’s a role model for us to follow. He might have bad days, he might not always be liked, but his potential is limitless. While he doesn’t seem to recognise that, he isn’t plagued by self-doubt either.

Lieutenant Dan clings to normality, cursing his life, himself, and Forrest after losing his legs. Now that he’s disabled, Dan refuses to take any pride in being a survivor, as even that’s a painful acknowledgement of his failure to live up to his ideals. He’s stuck in a painful cycle of self-loathing and unwillingness to change, refusing to appreciate the opportunities that lie before him. As he does on several occasions with others, Forrest uses his influence to improve Dan’s life, even if he doesn’t fully realise that’s what he’s doing.

With Dan, he helps him out of the depressive episode his former superior has sunk into, giving him a renewed sense of purpose with their hugely profitable shrimp business. Everything to do with the plot points in these moments might be quite sentimental and outlandish, but it’s genuinely uplifting to see this broken shell of a man reclaim his identity, proudly allowing himself to face whatever life throws his way.

The mindset that Dan was locked into for quite some time is similar to the internal struggles that plague Jenny, Forrest’s long-time friend who defended and stuck by him ever since he was a boy. Although there are notable side characters in Forrest Gump, as well as a metric tonne’s worth of diversions and sidetracks, the most fascinating and beautiful part of this film is Forrest’s wavering relationship with Jenny. Her childhood is vividly painted in a few short, simple moments, which amplify how heartbreaking this doomed relationship is.

Just as Forrest can never fully understand Jenny, since her attitudes and lifestyle will always elude him to some degree, she is also ignorant about herself. Unable to recognise her positive qualities (which Forrest sees clear as day), Jenny can’t love herself enough to follow a path that matches what she deserves, as her low self-esteem won’t let her consider that. When you add in Forrest’s misguided but well-intentioned behaviour, and how the audience, just like Jenny, knows that this romance can’t exist, this story is a tragedy at its core.

While its delivery might be a little rough around the edges at times amidst all of the film’s other spectacles, the relationship between Forrest and Jenny earns its longevity. By Forrest Gump’s conclusion, one can feel the weight of the combined years of absence between the pair. As Jenny further slips down a miserable and unenviable path, the fleeting moments of tenderness between the pair are heart-wrenching considering all that is left unsaid between them.

Surprisingly, Robin Wright doesn’t view Jenny as a tragic figure. In a 1994 interview with The L.A. Times, she said of her character: “She’s a lost soul who finds herself. But she is not a tragic figure, at least not more than any other girl going through her 20s and that catharsis.”

While it’s true that Jenny’s chaotic life might be a fitting metaphor for the whirlwind of uncertain emotions and unwelcome experiences that greet a young woman discovering herself in this period of her life, Jenny still clearly undergoes a downward trajectory. What’s more, she isn’t able to appreciate her fleeting moments of happiness during these troubled times, since her belief that she isn’t worthy of better circumstances is the main thing preventing her life from improving. Jenny’s pain is more understated as the film focuses on Forrest, who is generally oblivious to her many problems. But as he embarks on his adventures, she is slipping down a path that amplifies her misery.

One clever way of showing Jenny’s lifestyle gradually worsening is through her choices in partners; specifically, scenes where Forrest intervenes violently to protect her. At first, he does this during a perfectly consensual make-out session between her and what is presumably a fellow college student. The second time he tries to defend her honour involves him repeatedly punching a patron at a sleazy nightclub, who harasses and tries to touch Jenny during her scantily-clad performance on stage.

This scene is a depressing subversion of Jenny’s dream of being a singer, with her performing a mournful melody to an audience who are only there to leer at her body. As with Jenny’s abuse at the hands of her father, Forrest is completely oblivious to what this moment signifies. As he watches on, all he sees is her fulfilling her dream. It’s a haunting moment, made even more tragic considering his protectiveness probably led to her being fired.

Still unaware of the consequences of his actions, Forrest again beats up one of Jenny’s partners later in the film, for the third and final time. On this occasion, he has more than ample reason, as the man was being physically abusive towards her. Although Jenny’s circumstances are getting worse and worse, as is cleverly shown in the different iterations of this scene, Forrest’s reaction and mindset remain unwavering. Just like before, he can’t understand that his well-intentioned acts only end up hurting Jenny in the long run, just as she is unable to see that she deserves to be around people who respect her as Forrest does.

Although Forrest appears relatively unchanged throughout much of the film, allowing life to come at him and then seizing upon whatever floats his way, Jenny, as a young woman, has big dreams of who she wants to be. This is an alien concept for Forrest, so it’s especially tragic that he’s the one who embarks on these grand adventures while she slips down a very dark and linear path over the years.

That’s not to say that this character is perfect. We can’t view the pair’s relationship through rose-tinted spectacles. Jenny, perhaps unconsciously, extracts what she needs from Forrest before repeatedly leaving him, sometimes without even a goodbye. However, she’s a deceptively well-written character. Her trauma is communicated to the viewer, even if Forrest remains oblivious to it. While Jenny is far from perfect, her early life and characterisation are elucidated enough to make her perspective understandable.

Even though it might appear to be a light-hearted comedy with a barrage of wacky escapades, Forrest Gump rewards closer examination of the pair’s behaviour. Forrest’s protectiveness ultimately hinders Jenny and creates distance between them. Similarly, Jenny’s traumatic past and her fear of hurting Forrest lead her to do just that by abandoning him. Neither can truly understand the other’s experiences, so it’s fittingly tragic that Jenny only relinquishes herself to love when she knows she doesn’t have much time left on this Earth.

Watching this film 30 years later, the sexual elements of Forrest and Jenny’s relationship are rather uncomfortable to consider. While Forrest doesn’t have an official diagnosis for his intellectual limitations, his low IQ and inability to grasp social norms make Jenny’s attempts at intimacy difficult to watch. Thankfully, this aspect doesn’t completely change our perception of the characters, as their bond goes far beyond sex. However, it’s difficult to imagine a relationship of this kind being depicted onscreen today, and rightly so.

There are still several elements that hold Forrest Gump back from being a truly great film. In general, it leans too heavily into light-hearted whimsy, with some of Forrest’s adventures feeling like they meander. Much of the humour relies on how much of an oddity he’s seen as by others. While endearing in one sense, Forrest isn’t exactly a charming figure when he’s so simple, but he’s also too well-defined to be reduced to a mere joke. The film sometimes struggles to balance this dichotomy, occasionally tipping the scales too far in either direction.

The caveat to this is that the role of Forrest seems tailor-made for Tom Hanks, who pulls off this tall order masterfully. It’s impossible to imagine any other actor portraying this character, which makes it shocking to consider that John Travolta was the original choice for Forrest Gump. Thankfully, he turned down the role so he could deliver an excellent performance as Vincent Vega in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Even outside of Hanks’ contribution, the acting in this film is a masterclass, with Gary Sinise and Robin Wright turning in phenomenal performances that have stayed with me ever since I first watched the movie over a decade ago.

But beyond its talented cast, this film’s shining quality is the tragic reality of two people who seem destined to never truly understand each other, and are fated to view the other person as a beacon of light in their lives. Though Forrest and Jenny are far from star-crossed lovers in any traditional sense, there is something heartbreakingly pure about their relationship that justifies the journey we go on with these characters, even if it isn’t consistently brilliant.

USA | 1994 | 142 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Robert Zemeckis.
writer: Eric Roth (story by Winston Groom, based on his novel).
starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field & Haley Joel Osment.