What Works & What Doesn't: 'Forrest Gump'
Welcome back to What Works & What Doesn't, where we deconstruct the screenplays of famous films and determine just what the title suggests—what works, and what doesn't work.
This month, we're looking at the audience-beloved, mostly critically-lauded 1994 film Forrest Gump. It's a movie so likable, even Roger Ebert had nice things to say, and he had a reputation for disliking anything schmaltzy (which Gump most certainly is). The film won a ton of Oscars in 1995, including Best Actor (for Tom Hanks as the lovable, simple-minded title character), best director (Robert Zemeckis), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, a slew of other technical awards, and finally, Best Picture—despite having some pretty hefty competition, most notably Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. Repeat Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture for the Golden Globes of the same year, as well as a wealth of other awards and accolades.
All signs point to a pretty solid movie, yeah?
No, actually. The film was a crowd-pleaser at the time of its release, due mostly in part to its impressive special effects, whereby Forrest appears in historical footage alongside figures like George Wallace, John F. Kennedy, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Richard Nixon, and many more. It was also "sweet," whimsical and not terribly challenging, a narrative you could watch mindlessly while munching on popcorn.
And that's not inherently a bad thing, not by a long shot. I'm all for mindless entertainment, because sometimes we just need a cinematic experience that will allow us to turn our brains off for a while. But I also don't believe that mindlessness and downright insulting storytelling go hand in hand, and I'm especially annoyed when films guilty of that and so many more infractions are praised and revered (see my comments on Jurassic World).
Now, you might be thinking, at this point, that I've got an axe to grind. And, yeah, I do, because the film has a wealth of problems, the most egregious that it's basically thinly-veiled Christian propaganda, whereby the good-natured Gump is awarded every success imaginable, by no actions of his own save for being good-natured, but the "wicked" Jenny (Robin Wright, who as an actress deserves much better) is punished time and again because she's promiscuous, a free-spirit, and an idealist with dreams, ultimately dying of maybe AIDS but more probably Hepatitis C, a disease incurred during her wicked days and inescapable despite the fact she finally "settled down" with Forrest in his boyhood home, in their old, simple hometown (a placed steeped in racism and abuse, but never mind that). It's also a deeply misogynistic film, not just because of its treatment of Jenny, but also because the only other prominent female character is Forrest's mother (Sally Field), a walking aphorism bot whose only role is to instill in her son a sense of normality despite his intellectual limitations. Oh, and also she fucks the principal of a "normal" school so that Forrest can attend, rather than having to go to a "special" school, because that would be just unacceptable, wouldn't it? He's "no different than anyone else," but clearly he's "better than" the "special kids" who go to special school to "learn how to retread tires," as she puts it. A sentiment which opens the door to conversations about ableism and actors playing "simpleminded" characters in the hopes of winning an Oscar, a phenomenon so brilliantly satirized in Tropic Thunder ("You never go full retard.") as well as this classic sketch from Mr. Show:
But the thing is, you don't have to completely dissect Forrest Gump to see that, as a narrative, it really doesn't work at all, because the film breaks perhaps the most important rule of storytelling, and does so by design: the film gives us a passive rather than active protagonist. Everything that happens in the narrative happens to Forrest, with very little action taken on his own accord. He has one major desire in life, but even this he pursues lackadaisically, waiting for his dream to materialize for him, rather than chasing it down.
Let's dive a little deeper into the matter and discuss, in detail, why Gump is a passive protagonist and how, if the film works on any level, it is only because of its special effects, but visuals alone are not enough to make a movie truly great.
The Protagonist Defined
For Syd Field, author of the fantastic craft book Screenplay, character and action are intrinsically entwined. You cannot have one without the other. In his text, he quotes Henry James and his essay "The Art of Fiction":
What is character but the determination of incident? And what is incident but the illumination of character?
In this way, Field insists:
...All good movies, it seems, focus on the unfolding of a specific incident or event; and it is this incident that becomes the engine that powers the story to its completion.
So, it becomes the writer's goal to craft a narrative that is first and foremost focused on character:
First, define the dramatic need of your character. What does your character want? What is his/her need? What drives him to the resolution of your story?
Once your character is defined, the action will fall into place.
...The need of your character gives you a goal, a destination, an ending to your story. How your character achieves or does not achieve that goal becomes the action of your story.
And Field isn't the only scholar to promote character over action, or at least character as important as action. Robert McKee, author of Story and a stalwart of screenwriting advice, states:
We cannot ask which is more important, structure or character, because structure is character; character is structure.
On the whole, I think most writers and critics would agree that a plot can contain all the hallmarks of a well-told story—great beats, great turns, great surprises, great intrigue, etc.—but if the viewer/reader couldn't give a shit less about the characters, the plotting efforts are pretty much wasted. Whether likable and relatable, or the biggest assholes in the universe, characters have to be believable on some level and active in their own story, so that, whether they make good decisions or bad ones, we're ultimately engaged in what they do and how they behave when faced with conflicts barring them from their goals.
What Doesn't Work
And yet, the creators of the cinematic iteration of Forrest Gump are actively engaged in doing the exact opposite. I say cinematic iteration, because the film is based on a novel of the same name by Winston Groom, but it was always the intention of the director and the film's writer to veer away from the source material. Consider this quote from Zemeckis from a Chicago Tribune article (quoted at Wikipedia):
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. (Emphasis mine).
"He has no agenda." Truer words were never spoken. From the get-go, Forrest plays a completely inactive role in his own story. The film opens with a shot of a feather blowing in the wind, ultimately landing on Forrest's shoe. Symbolism! Forrest is the feather. He has no agenda, no goals, no destination. He goes where the wind takes him. He tells his story to a random stranger on a park bench, and in flashback we see that he is told he is "no different" than anyone else by his mother, and he accepts it as such (despite the fact that he is "special," but not in that derogatory way used by his mother and her one-time fuck-buddy, the school principal; his ability to run faster than bicycles and trucks alone casts him as decidedly different and more special than the average person). He seems perfectly content to linger around and let a group of bullies pummel him back to the Stone Age, but it is Jenny who encourages him to run, thereby revealing his Superman-like speed. This scene then repeats in Forrest's teenage years, whereby he inadvertently runs onto a football field during an afternoon game, and there just happens to be a scout in attendance who recruits Forrest to play college ball. Sure, he decides to join the army, but only because a recruiter happens to stop by and hand him a pamphlet encouraging him to enlist—i.e., not because Forrest wants to join, necessarily, but because someone tells him to do so.
This "decision" leads to this quite telling exchange:
Gump! What's your sole purpose in this army?
To do whatever you tell me, drill sergeant!
Goddamn it, Gump! You're a goddamn genius! This is the most outstanding answer I have ever heard. You must have a goddamn I.Q. of 160. You are goddamn gifted, Private Gump. Listen up, people...
Now for some reason I fit in the army like one of them round pegs. It's not really hard. You just make your bed real neat and remember to stand up straight and always answer every question with "Yes, drill sergeant."
DRILL SERGEANT (CONT'D)
...Is that clear?
Yes, drill sergeant!
See? Do I need to go on? I can, but I see no need. Rewatch the film sometime, and you'll see that every single other event in Forrest Gump happens to the protagonist, with the titular character simply going with the tide. His essential character trait is conformity, and for his conformity, he is rewarded (as opposed to Jenny, who is non-conformist, and is punished).
Speaking of Jenny, she embodies Gump's strongest desire: simply, to be with her. And yet, because of his "feather-in-the-wind," conformist status, every "decision" he makes takes him farther and farther away from Jenny (i.e., signing up for the Army and going to Vietnam, where he could potentially be killed). He never really actively pursues her. She is always the one to make contact with him, only to rebuff his advances and run away again. Does he chase her? No, he just runs aimlessly, for a total of three years and some change, whereby other people continue to steal ideas from him and get rich doing so—the Smiley Face T-shirt, the "Shit Happens" bumper sticker, etc. (not to mention both Elvis Presley stealing his iconic hip-gyrating dance and John Lennon sort-of stealing the lyrics to "Imagine" from the title character previously). But, hey, Jenny sees him on TV running and is inspired to reconnect with him and introduce him to the son they produced together, with just enough time to spare for her to croak. The message here is, you can have everything you ever wanted if you just wait around for things to happen (echoing the concepts of blind faith and "God's plan").
I'm not the only person to notice this intentional flaw in Forrest Gump. Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly had some choice words for the film:
...like Peter Sellers' feebleminded gardener in Being There and Dustin Hoffman's rapid-fire autistic savant in Rain Man, Forrest, who always does exactly what he's told, is a character things have a way of happening to. Despite (or because of) his trusting, man-child nature, he ends up playing a pivotal role in just about every key moment of American cultural history since the early '60s.
...Forrest Gump is at once a fable of American innocence and perseverance and a technically amazing pop stunt. It is also glib, shallow, and monotonous...
But, as I indicated above, Gleiberman is a lone voice in a sea of near-universal critical praise for the film. Which raises the question: why? If Forrest Gump breaks the golden rule of screenwriting and gives us a completely passive protagonist, why the hell is it so popular? Of course, the explanation lies in the lone voice of dissent, a voice less-likely to be heard, drowned as it is by the din of praise. Again, from Gleiberman:
...Forrest is less a character than a tour guide, and Zemeckis, desperate to move us, ends up packing every teary device he can—death, marriage, the joy of parenthood, AIDS, another death—into the last 20 minutes. It's a shameless display, though not much more dishonest than the rest of the movie, which reduces the tumult of the last few decades to a virtual-reality theme park; a baby-boomer version of Disney's America.
I'll take this theme park metaphor further and point out that these scenes of tumult blip by about as quickly as the different countries and ethnic backgrounds do in the "It's a Small World" ride. There's no real depth to these events, from George Wallace standing up for his nasty, racist beliefs, to the entire Vietnam War. Not only this, the presence of Forrest Gump in these historical moments works to undermine their importance. When Wallace, for instance, symbolically stands in the way of African-Americans entering college, and makes a rather hate-filled speech while doing so, we're distracted from the words this awful man speaks, our attentions forced to pay attention to Forrest mugging and cavorting in the background. Hardy-har, isn't it funny, look at the sweet, simple-minded "retard" who doesn't understand the levity of this situation.
And if not via altered historical footage, these events in history are undermined through Forrest's commentary—the same principal as showing him mugging and cavorting, or needing to "go pee" while he's shaking JFK's hand, but delivered by different means. His rationalization for the assassinations of JFK and Robert Kennedy? "It must be hard being brothers." John Lennon was shot and killed "for no particular reason at all," ignoring the psychological complex idea that any belief system can turn someone into a "terrorist" that emerges through Mark David Chapman's life story. It goes on like that. All these historic, momentous occasions get a few minutes of screen time, giving the film more a feel of a nostalgia-poking Pepsi commercial than a feature length film with the freedom to really say something, one way or another.
And yes, at this point, you can say, "It's just a movie, don't take things so seriously." To which I will counter that one of my favorite films of all time is Return of the Living Dead, an ostensibly stupid and pointless movie that functions only to be gross, gory, crude, and morbidly humorous. And really, there's no "ostensibly" about it—it is all those things, and then-some. The movie has no other aim than to be entertaining. It isn't trying to "say" anything, and if you're looking for a deeper message, you're wasting your time. It is a "cotton candy" movie if there ever was one—it has no nutritional value whatsoever. And yeah, in a way, it's kinda sexist too. But it never won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. True, Roger Ebert gave it a positive review, but he also recognized it for what it is (and anyway, Ebert is far from the best barometer on what constitutes good filmmaking versus bad, particularly since he failed to recognize the inherent sexism in Forrest Gump, yet railed on the supposed sexism in Blue Velvet, which is only evident to criticize all of '50s-era American mechanics, including its treatment of women).
Return of the Living Dead serves its purpose, and does so in the shadows, away from the glitz and glamor of mainstream Hollywood (as does Blue Velvet, for that matter). Forrest Gump is about as mainstream Hollywood as it gets, and it is exactly the kind of film that wins top honors at bullshit awards ceremonies like the Oscars (remember, Citizen Kane lost Best Picture to some schmaltzy movie called How Green Was My Valley that practically no one these days has seen). It has no desire to really dig deep into American culture. If anything, it wishes instead to write off the most complex events in recent history as distractions from the "good, simple" life embodied by that false sense of 1950s innocence. It can't even "go there" even when it is "there": the lowly fate of Lieutenant Dan, a discarded and forgotten disabled veteran, feels like little more than a parody of Born on the Fourth of July, something out of a Zucker brothers movie like The Naked Gun or Scary Movie. It's all just too complicated and inexplicable for our good little conformist Forrest, and perhaps we could all "learn a lot from a dummy," as those seat belt PSA ads used to say.
But even this much analysis is probably overthinking the matter, at least according to the film's overarching message, yeah?
What say you, LitReactor folk? Do you agree that Forrest Gump is really not a good movie at all, even for "cotton candy," "popcorn" fair. Or am I way off base with my analysis? If so, why? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
Until next time...
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