Forrest Gump will no doubt emerge as this summer's most successful non-action film. One element that has been overlooked in most of the responses to the film is an ideology that Rush Limbaugh and Jesse Helms would adore.
The causes for interest in and hope for this film's success are multiple. First, last year's Oscar winner for best film, Tom Hanks, chose this as the first project after his win. Second, the film displays a remarkable, and remarkably subtle, marriage of film and computer graphics technology (although those who remember Woody Allen's wonderful Zelig may be more tempered in their response to Forrest's appearances in historical footage. Nothing will ever surpass Zelig's appearance at Hitler's rally). Third, this film purports to take us on a grand magical-realist tour of recent American history, calculated to push a number of Boomer buttons. Finally, unusual for a summer film, Forrest Gump depends on human interaction for its emotional effects rather than blowing up helicopters, buildings, police vehicles, Persians, and Colombians.
However, a quick glance at the plot line will reveal a message behind the emotional manipulation that belies the human face of this film and instead places it in the category of ideological propaganda. During the film I laughed and I cried, but a few hours later I felt as if more were being delivered by this film than the remarkable life story of a retarded man.
Consider the parallel lives of Forrest and Jenny. Forrest, with an IQ of 75, becomes a multimillionaire, partly through accident and partly through the wise investments of his friend lieutenant Dan. He marries the woman he loves. He lives in bucolic splendor in his family's house. How did he achieve what seem to be most everyone's goals in life: wealth, love, and a life surrounded by beautiful nature?
He did this by following a few simple maxims that his Mama told him. Because, you see, life is like a chocolate box: you never know what you'll find.
He succeeds in the army because he slavishly follows what his superiors command.
While his appearance in the right place at the right time is often by accident (at the Washington rally where he is reunited with Jenny, on the Gulf coast following the hurricane), his behavior during these times is not capricious. Instead he succeeds by never questioning authority, by not really understanding the larger context of his actions (for example, in Vietnam), and by following maxims so simple as to embarrass that everything-I-needed-to-know-I-learned-in-kindergarten guy. Like Oliver North, but without his mean-spiritedness and self-righteousness, Forrest Gump is the perfect follower, a patsy for the authoritarianism that has exemplified our government and laws during the period of Forrest's narrative life.
Compare his approach to life with that of poor Jenny. Jenny takes chances. She defies authority by posing for Playboy, by being an aspiring folk singer, by opposing the Vietnam War and supporting the Black Panthers, by using psychotropic drugs not sanctioned by the government (cocaine instead of alcohol). According to Forrest Gump, what happens if you question authority, experiment with your life, and try to escape unreflective bourgeois life? You are killed by a disease for your troubles. Why did you act the way you did? You defied the government, commodified your body, and took drugs because you were molested by your pervert of a father.
This plot of this emotionally affecting film doesn't argue its point, but demonstrates it dramatically: reflective people are often rebellious, and their rebellion causes them to experiment; their experimentation sometimes results in mistakes, and those mistakes result in death. Better to avoid taking chances, do what people tell you and you will be rewarded with riches, love and property. There is a Great Silent Majority out there who would no doubt agree with this homiletic approach to life, but it is also an approach that stifles intellectual growth and cultural progress. Forrest Gump took us on a ride through the last few decades of American history, but it left one scene out: Forrest sitting behind Ollie North at the Iran-Contra hearings, mindlessly applauding North's every word.
Steven E. Alford