Exploring Trends of 1990s Cinema Through the Lens of Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump can initially be interpreted as a somewhat light-hearted movie with mass appeal, the kind that tends to immediately be embraced by audiences only to fade away into the depths of Hollywood’s forgotten films within a few years. Sure, the film collected a myriad of Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Visual Effects and Best Film Editing. But even these accolades don’t necessarily demand an everlasting place in American cinematic history. However, Forrest Gump managed to escape a predictably forgotten future and instead embedded itself in to the very heart of American culture. One reason for this is of course the fact that it covers so much of America, from the fifties to the nineties, in a somewhat optimistic haze. It was even inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2011 for being culturally, historically and aesthetically significant (Barnes).
Like many films of the 1990s, Forrest Gump tries to come to grips with the United States’ sometimes unsavory past. On November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall Fell, starting a post-Cold War era that marked different priorities for the United States. It was a time of reflection, when the country no longer had to worry about fighting Reds.
Although Forrest Gump confronts serious issues, his I.Q. of 75 prevents him from being too affected or disturbed by the happenings surrounding him. With the help of his mother’s famous quips, he can get through just about anything with a dash of luck and a well placed motherly quote. Frank Rich of The New York Times compares him to Bill Clinton, or rather what Clinton hoped to inspire in America:
He is neither bitter nor cynical but a healing figure, eager to put his and his country’s past behind him to embrace idealism and hope. Isn’t that what many Clinton voters felt on election night 1992? It says much about the reality that has set in since, as the White House blurs policies stretching from health care to Haiti, that a Hollywood fantasy like “Forrest Gump” is more successful than the President at arousing those powerful longings in 1994.
Although I believe that the character of Forrest Gump and his journey through history reflects the collective mood of an era, I also feel that many elements harken back to a Reaganite cinema, full of patriotism and the ever endurant, winning “American”. However, I would argue that the film was ripe for just about any political ideology. Because the protagonist is so innocent and uncontroversial, one can interpret his actions with any number of motivations and beliefs, which undoubtedly tend to reflect the viewer’s own personal ideologies.
The Reaganite cinema of the 80s that continued to seep into the following decade is also contrasted with aesthetic and thematic elements of a postmodern cinema, popular of the 90s. Forrest Gump values film for just what it is: a narrative act of fiction. The film rejects a typical story structure by incorporating many different stories into one cohesive whole that jumps back and forth, mixing genres and time periods. I would argue that the uplifting blank canvass figure of Forrest, as well as these postmodern elements, contributed to helping the film move from an easy, no-hassle piece of appealing entertainment to a film stuck in America’s cultural history.
Films of the 1980s that reflected a Reagan-like mindset tended to focus on America as the “winners”. This is reflected in Forrest Gump, although in an individualized notion. Gump never seems to set out to be the best, he is just good at following orders. None-the-less, he becomes the pinnacle of male Americanism succeeding in all of the most important Reaganite things: sports, war, business, making money and (briefly) getting the girl.
The film oozed with many Reagan notions, most notably the importance of success through capital gain. Not only does Forrest make money through his various ventures (sponsorship in ping pong and becoming the USA’s most prominent shrimp boater), but he also describes others’ success in monetary terms. While running across America he inadvertently helps out two men who are struggling in their business ventures, one with a bumper sticker idea that reads “Shit Happens” and the other with a yellow shirt bearing a classic smiley face. He then describes their success by saying they made a lot of money. It is also telling that Forrest somewhat unethically signed a sponsorship contract for a large sum of money based on a white lie. Of course lying for money is not unethical because he uses it for a good cause (and he exposes Watergate so Karma is on Forrest’s side, right?)
Forrest Gump no doubt celebrates these Reagan sentiments, but in the context of a Clinton world. I think more than anyone, Forrest can truly represent one of Clinton’s campaign statements: “Government’s responsibility is to create more opportunity. The people’s responsibility is to make the most of it” (Quart and Auster, 166). The film explicitly shows how the land of opportunity, as America is called, can truly shape a man with an IQ of 75, who both Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis referred to as an “average guy” in their Oscar acceptance speeches, into a war hero, billionaire and all together icon in the greatest country on earth.
“What other country could Forrest’s success be possible?” questions the film. Clinton-era America was a time of globalization, prosperity and a climbing stock market, with little unemployment and increased productivity. So it was no wonder that America was seen with a more positive glow, with an emphasis on economic success and the ability for the “every man” to surpass any pre-determined expectations.
Throughout the film Forrest is given different philosophical views about the path that life is supposed to take. His manly man turned cripple, alcoholic Lieutenant Dan insists that everyone is born with a destiny. In fact, when Forrest decides to save his life in Vietnam, he completely ruins that destiny; Lieutenant Dan believed that he was supposed to die with his men on the battlefield, just like his father did, and his father’s father did, and so on.
Conversely, Forrest’s ever-wise mother claims in the frequently quoted line that, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” In the end, Forrest decides that it is a little bit of both, once again reflecting the campaign statement that Clinton made back in 1992. You may be born with a certain skill set in a country that has everything to offer, but it is your job to shape your destiny and decide which direction you run.
Not only does Forrest embody a very nineties notion of Americanism, he comes to embody America itself. He runs from coast to coast, top to bottom, just because he feels like it and he can. He is in the middle of every major historical moment in the country’s history from the 1950s to the 1990s. He even saves his fellow platoon mates, who are all named after various parts of the country, in essence saving the country itself. Of course, viewing Forrest as America brings the film into a somewhat different trend of the 1990s, which is postmodern cinema.
Like 1985’s Back to the Future, the film reinvents history. However, we are very aware from even the first shot of the film that this is not reality. The audience is immediately presented with a feather flowing in the breeze, as the camera impossibly follows it in different directions, dancing gracefully through the streets of Savannah, Georgia.
The film was honored for its Visual Effects for moments like these, when something is deliberately shown that the audience knows to be impossible. This is also apparent in the extensive footage of Tom Hanks interacting with major historical figures. He meets three separate presidents, intercedes in the integration of the University of Alabama, becomes the reason that the Watergate burglars are caught, chats with John Lennon and takes part in the Vietnam War and anti-war protests.
Very typically of postmodern films, the audience does not actually believe that a man named Forrest Gump played such a central role in all of these major events, meeting with and influencing some of the most powerful people in America. The viewer is aware that this is Tom Hanks, being mixed with newsreel footage (enhanced by special effects), which could result in either humor or awe to the audience.
Film is no longer appreciated for its believability and real-life replica quality, but is appreciated for what it is: a fictitious narrative. Postmodernism also views history as a narrative that just about anyone can bend to their liking, and Forrest Gump is the perfect neutral figure to act as a vehicle for this discovery and stand in for America itself. There is less synthesis in the film’s narrative, instead opting for a meandering epic tale of Forrest (and thus America) with many separate stories assembled together.We also see the narrative of Jenny when she is not with Forrest, in different places yet happening simultaneously. Forrest’s story telling, accompanied by a very post-modern-like voice over, allows for the movie to flip from the present to the past frequently.
I would also argue that Forrest Gump mixes a myriad of genres together depending on the period of the protagonist’s life. There is a tragic love story, an underdog success story, a classic historical drama, comedic elements and even an action war sequence. Perhaps this is another reason why Forrest Gump was such a huge success at the box office; it appealed to just about everyone, especially the Baby Boomer generation of the prosperous 1990s that was ready to spend money at the theater (and enjoy a nostalgic and bitchin’ soundtrack while they were at it).
It’s success led to the planning of a sequel, which ran into trouble. But that did not stop the Forrest Gump franchise from capitalizing on its fiscal success. A popular restaurant chain, which boasts locations such as Times Square and Fisherman’s Wharf, was named after Gump’s shrimp boating business: Bubba Gump’s. Gary Sinise also embraced his notoriety thanks to the film by starting a band called the Lieutenant Dan Band, performing often for the troops and helping build a memorial for disabled veterans, furthering what many see as the film’s patriotic message.
Although Forrest Gump is leaps and bounds away from the science fiction trend of the 1990s, it can be argued that in a sense the film is a fantasy, constructing a new America, a neutered America. Thanks to the brilliance of Hanks’s child-like and uncontroversial Gump, the audience is free to overlook or analyze any aspect of America that they choose, focusing on their own ideologies and biases and more likely than not being manipulated to believe in an uplifting version of America. All of the controversial happenings of the time that Forrest experienced are projected onto Jenny, leaving Forrest as a non-judgmental innocent that quite literally anyone can relate to.
Of course not everything is portrayed as good; the Black Panthers seem like violent crazy radicals (and somewhat tellingly in my opinion the only assassinations that aren’t mentioned are of MLK and Malcolm X) and it can be presumed that Jenny’s drug use may have led her to contract an incurable virus (eg HIV). However, as Forrest says, despite all of the bad things in the world, beauty is everywhere.
And thanks to Forrest’s nonchalant inability to fully understand the happenings around him, things like shootings, death, war and racism get brushed off without a second thought. In the end the audience comes full circle, leaving the very apparently constructed fantasy world with the notion that America is great no matter what (as is Forrest Gump). The post-modern aesthetic so popular in the 1990s as well as the film’s thematic elements somewhat complicate whether the audience accepts this constructed America, or sees it for what it is: a fictitious fantasy.
What do you think? Leave a comment.