As we reach the penultimate selection on the list of 100, I want to take a moment to thank anyone & everyone who has perused this series, whether you’ve stuck with me the whole way or just checked out an entry here and there. When the idea struck me to do this I originally thought it’d take a couple months at the most. Now here we are just about two years later, and I am kind of glad it has taken me this long, not only because I’ve seized the opportunity to write other things along the way, but also because I have enjoyed taking the time to fully digest what I find entertaining. I already knew I liked comedies and sports & Christmas movies, but in the past couple of years I have self-discovered a few other things. I like action movies better than I once did, as long as there is good character development (Lethal Weapon) and some humor thrown into the mix between the flying bullets (Die Hard). While I am not necessarily one for the traditional tearjerker, I do appreciate a certain level of poignancy and thoughtfulness (Field of Dreams, Cast Away). I love to laugh, but lean toward intelligent, well written comedy (Big, Office Space, Best in Show) rather than sophomoric hijinx. I don’t think I fully grasped the genius of John Hughes (National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, and several others) until long after my teen years. Really great movies don’t go out of style (Casablanca, Rocky, Jaws, Star Wars, Vertigo), they age like a good bottle of scotch. I think the perfect movie would have an ensemble cast of Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, William Shatner, Meg Ryan, Kevin Spacey, Al Pacino, Kevin Costner, and Jimmy Stewart (if he were still alive). The screenplay would be written by the aforementioned Hughes and directed by Robert Zemeckis. And while Hollywood falls all over themselves trying to produce either audibly obnoxious special effects blockbusters starring pretty people with no chops that are impressive but don’t leave a lasting impression or overly pompous message films that seem to imply that having a plethora of British actors with an air of gravitas equals quality regardless of the fact that those of us in flyover country won’t be the least bit excited to catch such a pretentious snoozefest on some random cable channel on a rainy weekend afternoon three years down the road, the truth is that the best films, atleast in The Manoverse, are quieter, more minimalist offerings (Twelve Angry Men, Goobye Mr. Chips) that are well written (Glengarry Glen Ross), utilize performers that everyone will remember with fondness for decades to come (Planes, Trains, & Automobiles), and never fail to put a smile on my face (Father of the Bride I & II) or ensnare my heart with a warm glow (A Christmas Story, It’s A Wonderful Life).
All of which brings us to the #2 film on the list. It brings to the table a potpourri of everything I love. It makes me happy, it makes me sad, it makes me ponder. It is drama, comedy, a wee bit of action, and a look at history far more interesting than what we learned in school. The soundtrack is amazing, and the cast superb. It can be viewed through the prism of pure entertainment, or analyzed as an allegory full of symbolism and social commentary. Much like Field of Dreams, it is a film that I would love to have conceptualized and written myself, and have tremendous respect for those that did. This movie has vaulted to the top partly because of repeated viewings. It is on television a lot, and when it is on I cannot turn the channel. Even my Dad is mesmerized by it, and trust me…my father isn’t captivated by much.
I am speaking of the 1994 Robert Zemeckis/Tom Hanks collaboration Forrest Gump, the story of an intellectually challenged boy growing up in 1950’s Alabama. Though Forrest isn’t intelligent by academic standards (he has an IQ of 70, just above the mentally retarded line), he seems to have a mix of common sense, loyalty, and genuine empathy that allows him to make his way in the world just fine. We get to follow Forrest from grade school all the way through high school, college, and into adulthood. Along the way Gump has a lot of interesting adventures…he motivates a young Elvis Presley to dance, plays college football for the legendary Bear Bryant, innocently ignores Governor George Wallace’s attempt to stop desegregation at the University of Alabama, earns the Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart after saving the lives of most of his platoon in Vietnam, speaks at an anti-war rally (in full uniform) on The Mall in DC alongside Abbie Hoffman, hangs out with The Black Panthers, sets off the Watergate scandal with a phone call, visits China as a world class ping pong player, meets Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, & Nixon, gives John Lennon the lyrics for the song Imagine while appearing on The Dick Cavett Show, survives Hurricane Carmen becoming a shrimping mogul in the process, converts his shrimping money into billions of dollars by investing in Apple Computers, and jogs back & forth across the country multiple times while inspiring the motto “Shit Happens” and the ubiquitous Smiley Face logo with its slogan “Have A Nice Day”. That’s quite a full life for anyone, let alone a person considered to be…well…an idiot. In the midst of this very interesting life we also meet the people who help Forrest Gump become the person he becomes – his mother, a single woman whose homespun wisdom and instructions to “never let anyone tell you that you’re different” form the foundation of her son’s unaffected outlook…Jenny, the loyal, non-judgmental friend Forrest meets in grade school and loves for the rest of her life…Bubba, the almost equally simpleminded Army pal that teaches Forrest all about the shrimping business…and Lt. Dan, the superior officer whose life Forrest saves in Vietnam and who eventually becomes his “first mate”.
Out of this supporting cast it is Jenny who is most fascinating, and it is the love story of Forrest & Jenny that is at the heart of the film. Jenny’s mother died when she was very young and she is abused and presumably molested by her alcoholic father as a little girl. As an adult she becomes a stripper then a hippie, sleeping with random men and using drugs all the while. I’m no psychologist, but even though we don’t get an in depth glimpse into Jenny’s home life (the movie, afterall, is about Forrest) we can surmise that her abusive situation leads to extremely low self-esteem and an understandably skewed perspective. We all know that, under normal circumstances, a pretty girl like Jenny would never give a simpleton like Forrest the time of day, but because of her situation a genuinely good-hearted soul like him becomes her rock. In a way he saves her life as much as he saves Lt. Dan’s.
The parallel stories of Jenny & Forrest represent, for some, the Two Americas that so many politicians have campaigned about. He is the clean cut, All-American football player, war hero, and successful businessman with a kind disposition and solid values. She is sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll…an embodiment of the 60’s counterculture that, through the prism of history, has lost a lot of its romantic luster and is often viewed as the beginning of the internal destruction of our nation. I don’t know if this was intentional by the filmmakers or Winston Groom, the author of the original novel, but I am not sure it’s all that important anyway. Lots of books and movies can be examined for sociopolitical meaning or spin, and that can be fun and interesting. But I am just not one to get caught up in paralysis by analysis. I look at Forrest Gump as being original, well written, and tremendously entertaining. It is thought provoking, slightly philosophical, and poignant without going over-the-top into maudlin tearjerker territory. That’s enough for me, but if one chooses to read some sort of deep significance into every scene or snippet of dialogue have at it…the material is there.
The performances in this film are nothing short of magnificent. Tom Hanks won a well-deserved second consecutive Oscar for Best Actor. Hanks is so good that while watching the movie one is not watching an actor portray a role…Tom Hanks IS Forrest Gump. Gary Sinise, who was largely an unknown at the time other than a nice turn as George in an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men alongside John Malkovich, portrays Lt. Dan as a bitter cripple searching for answers after Forrest denies him his destiny of dying on the battlefield. Sinise was robbed at the Academy Awards, losing the Best Supporting Actor statue to Martin Landau for his turn as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. Landau also beat Samuel L. Jackson, who was nominated for his role in Pulp Fiction. At any rate, Forrest Gump made me a Gary Sinise fan, and he continues to be one of the most underrated actors today. Sally Field, only 10 years older than Hanks, plays Momma Gump in what may have been one of the most underappreciated roles of her career. For me it is a performance that ranks right up there with more acclaimed ones in Norma Rae (for which she won a best Actress Oscar), Smokey & the Bandit, and Steel Magnolias. Mykelti Williamson hasn’t done much since Forrest Gump, but tell me you don’t hear his voice in your head every time someone is talking about shrimp (“Shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh…shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich…”). And finally there is Robin Wright, whose portrayal of Jenny evokes sadness & sympathy in such a way that one never stops rooting for her no matter how many wrong turns she seems to take. Wright too was overlooked by the Oscar folks, which is a shame. Forrest Gump was unquestionably the best performance of her career.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the music. Forrest Gump utilizes tunes from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, ending up with what is a truly awesome soundtrack. Elvis, The Doors, CCR, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimi Hendrix…and so much more. I am a big believer in the power of music making a huge difference in a movie, and here there is no doubt that it greatly enhances the experience. Sometimes it is an original score, like the theme for Jaws. Or existing songs can be used to evoke a mood and embody a certain time period, such as Saturday Night Fever, The Big Chill, or Footloose. The latter is the case here. Would the writing and the performances qualify Forrest Gump as a great film regardless?? Probably. But the outstanding music adds an important layer that takes the film from extremely good to transcendent.
The writing in Forrest Gump is like a great chess match. It is three moves ahead of the viewer at all times, setting you up for a checkmate you never see coming. There is great drama, but then there will be a scene or a line of dialogue that makes me laugh. I suppose this might keep folks uncomfortably off balance in 9 out of 10 movies, but this is the rare occasion where it works. I chuckle every time I see young Forrest listening to his mother…ummm…convince the school principal to let Forrest attend. Or when Lt. Dan, in the midst of a very powerful soliloquy about salvation asks Forrest if he has found Jesus and he sincerely replies that he didn’t know he was supposed to be looking for Him. But then before one can even stop smiling there is inevitably an introspective moment that gives one pause. There are two scenes near the end of the film that I am convinced won Hanks the Academy Award. The first is when Forrest finds out that Jenny has given birth to a now school age child and that he is the father. Overcome with emotion the first thing he asks is if the child is smart, with the implication being that he is very well aware of his own mental deficiencies. It is an extremely powerful moment…maybe one of the most moving scenes in the history of film. The second is when Jenny dies, ostensibly from HIV/AIDS, and Forrest is talking to her grave. That scene in the hands of any other performer may be cliché and overly melodramatic, but Tom Hanks hits just the right note of perfection. It is a breathtaking sequence.
Forrest Gump, much like the sociopolitical divide it may or may not represent, is black & white for many people. Some adore it, some think it detestable. I am not sure why the haters hate, but I think they are missing out. As for myself, I have grown to adore this film and have watched it countless times. It is everything a great movie should be and more. And that’s all I have to say about that.