There are a lot of reasons to go after Forrest Gump (1994). It’s a long, unfocused movie about a passive character who nevertheless shapes the course of human history in about 30 different ways. It’s a film without much on its mind, so pleased with its premise that it doesn’t bother to explore it. Twenty-five years have passed since Forrest Gump hit theaters, but its nostalgic, rose-colored look at the 1950s through the 1980s is as relevant as ever.
It’s a movie that tries hard to be apolitical, and in doing so, reinforces a notion that there’s some great America living in memory, just waiting to be restored. That America never existed, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t become a hugely potent cultural force for those longing to return to it.
Forrest Gump’s attempt to sidestep politics reinforces a kind of static worldview that doesn’t allow Americans to reevaluate or reinterpret their own history. That’s particularly ironic because on the surface, the film seems to engage with politics directly. There are three presidents in the movie, but the most political moment any of them has is when Nixon recommends the Watergate Hotel to Forrest (and one thousand eyes roll in unison).
When Forrest attends a national anti-war protest on the Washington Mall, he gives a speech that is inaudible. It’s a bit, a joke, a not-so-subtle reminder that hippies were silly, overly earnest people who could be moved by a simpleton. For Forrest, the words mean nothing, whatever they were. They offer no revelation as to how he’s feeling, because Forrest is designed to resist the idea of character depth or humanity.
Forrest’s experiences in the war he speaks about could have also served as a moment of political awakening, both for Forrest and for Forrest Gump. Most movies treat war as hellacious and highlight the disconnect between the men who send soldiers to die and the soldiers who do the dying. In Forrest Gump, Vietnam is mostly a romp. There’s sideways rain, Forrest’s friend Bubba, and Gary Sinise doing whatever it is he’s doing in this movie.
When death does come to Forrest and his friends in Vietnam, Forrest himself acts as something of a buffer. He doesn’t totally grasp the seriousness of what’s happening, and so we don’t either. His friend dies, and his commanding officer loses his legs, but Forrest has ice cream, so he’s not really all that concerned.
At a Black Panther party, Forrest once again seems totally oblivious to the politics of the people around him. He’s there for Jenny, and a fight breaks out only because of the behavior of her boyfriend. Every time Forrest Gump appears to be engaging in something political, it’s really engaging in an artful dodge, ignoring any of the substance it appears to be engaging with.
The film does this so well because Forrest himself is a total cypher. He’s designed as an unthinking witness, and he serves that role well. Forrest’s totally passivity might even work if the movie weren’t so willing to ignore everything difficult about the period it’s depicting. Jenny, the love of Forrest’s life and the person he most frequently intersects with, actually is in the thick of things. She’s at the anti-war protest, she goes to college — she seems to be making conscious choices about how to live and respond to the world she’s in. In the end, though, Jenny is there to act as a motivating force for Forrest. She’s aware of the world, but only through the prism of the men she encounters, and the ones she seems to follow around.
Her death, presumably from AIDS, is yet another way that Forrest Gump dodges any definitive statements about its time. The cause of Jenny’s death is never stated, because to state it would be to make it real. Instead, she’s just sick, and she just dies, and Forrest goes on living.
In so many ways, then, Forrest Gump pays only lip service to the civil unrest that should be at its core. Even worse, though, is the movie’s total failure to engage with one of the issues that should be dominating the film. Through at least the movie’s first half, Forrest is living in Jim Crow Alabama, and the movie makes almost no effort to engage with that reality. There’s a single moment, one in which Forrest witnesses George Wallace’s stand at an Alabama school house, that is supposed to feel sufficient. Through the rest of the film, though, the South is depicted as a place where things are fundamentally decent and charmingly folksy. It’s a fantasy built on faux-nostalgia, and it’s created an idea of America during this era that is fundamentally hollow.
This nostalgia is powerful. It’s led many to see Forrest Gump as fundamentally American, even as it reinforces ideas about America that are based largely in convenient lies. These aren’t new lies, though. They’re the lies that this country has been resting on for generations, ones that comfort those who ignored oppression, exactly the way Forrest Gump does.
Forrest Gump takes place in a world where America is a great nation, where its presidents are of equal merit, and the Jim Crow South is a charming, basically decent place. In ignoring certain stories and emphasizing others, the film has decided what parts of history we should keep. It’s made an America that’s greater than America ever was, and one that’s also notably whiter.
The film is a balm. It’s designed only for comfort, and its comforts are meant only for those who want to ignore actual history in favor of more convenient truths. Donald Trump did not build his campaign on top of Forrest Gump alone, but the film is part of an America that desperately wants to be made great again.
Reflecting on our past with any degree of honesty is hard, especially when that past is filled with misdeeds and darkness. Forrest Gump seeks to trap us in a more pleasant version of history, but that version has no value because there’s no truth to it. It’s a convenient lie that we’re still trying to snap ourselves out of.