The Cheerful Nihilism of ‘Forrest Gump’, 25 Years Later

     July 1, 2019

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Forrest Gump was one of the big hits of the 1990s. It was the highest-grossing movie of 1994, making more than blockbusters like The Lion King, True Lies, and Speed. It went on to win six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The story of the eponymous slow-witted man (Tom Hanks) who traipses through major events of the 1960s and 70s while never losing sight of his true love, Jenny (Robin Wright), was uplifting for audiences and it’s not difficult to see why. However, beneath the memorable aphorisms and Hanks’ eminently imitable performance, Forrest Gump is a surprisingly cold-hearted movie that behaves with an uplifting attitude belying its deeper nihilism and indifference to important events. The recurring joke of Forrest Gump is that he’s too slow to pick up on all the important things happening around him; it’s a joke that has aged poorly.

What makes Forrest Gump such an irritating film today is that it makes no distinction between Forrest accidentally wandering into something relatively unimportant, like the creation of the “Have a Nice Day” t-shirt, and accidentally wandering into something that’s incredibly important to a lot of people and to American history, like a meeting of the Black Panthers or a protest of the war in Vietnam. Because Forrest approaches life with great simplicity, the movie follows suit, and treats his naiveite and ignorance as comical virtues. But through this lens where everything is treated as a joke because Forrest fails to recognize its importance, the recurring motif of Zemeckis’ movie basically becomes “lol nothing matters.”

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Image via Paramount

Some might argue that Zemeckis is setting up a meaningful juxtaposition. We know that the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement are important, so Forrest’s obliviousness heightens the impact. But the movie knows where to draw its lines and it draws them in a half-hearted manner. Forrest Gump knows not to treat the Vietnam War like a total joke so it has Bubba (Mykelti Williamson) die a sad death in Forrest’s arms. But the movie doesn’t want to make A STATEMENT on an incredibly unpopular war that saw 58,220 Americans die for no reason. Instead, the most it can do is show the personal loss to Forrest—Bubba, who knew a lot about shrimp and seems to have no life beyond that—and then in the next scene Forrest is happily eating ice cream while he recovers from being “shot in the buttocks.” Forrest’s simplicity is the movie’s guiding ethos, so it can’t dwell on anything that matters unless it personally matters to Forrest.

This creates an odd kind of selfishness even though Forrest is not a selfish character. Forrest is present as some of the biggest moments of the 20th century, and because he’s simple, these moments don’t register for him. Even the concept of assassinations becomes an odd kind of running joke, first stated with seriousness with the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, and then as a kind of a background noise with the attempted assassinations of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. The movie doesn’t seem to really have an opinion on this violence as much as it’s something that’s sad and then we got used to it and now we don’t really deal with it anymore. That would be a potent message if the movie also didn’t hold up Forrest’s obliviousness as a charming quality that allows him to float on the winds of history like the feather from the opening credits.

Forrest’s obliviousness can’t be read as indifference because he doesn’t understand the import of history or culture, but the general audience does, and Forrest Gump works hard to let them off the hook. If you worked in a lab to make a movie to soothe baby boomers who had sold out their values and simply looked back at the 60s and 70s as a crazy time in history, it would look a lot like Forrest Gump. Zemeckis’ movie basically pounds in the final nail in the coffin of the movements that the Reagan era obliterated (the story pretty much ends in 1982 when Jenny dies). The film takes all these momentous moments and rather than recontextualizing or examining them, it renders them into kitsch. Protesting the Vietnam War ends up having as much value as a “Shit Happens” bumper sticker.

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