Exploring Trends of 1990s Cinema Through the Lens of Forrest Gump

Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump
Tom Hanks in 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.┬áBecause 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.

Forrest Gump sharing his box of chocolates
Forrest Gump sharing his box of chocolates

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.

Opening scene of Forrest Gump
Opening scene of Forrest Gump

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.

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  1. Dale Barham

    Brilliant article on one of my favourite films. Great job!

  2. Very insightful, great job depicting the film for what it truly is.

  3. I was born in 79 and was 15 i guess when it came out. I went to the theater to watch it having watched Big and Turner and Hooch growing up. I liked Tom Hanks and ive always loved history. I think that made me want to see it. Plus, my dad worked alot and i was sent on my own to do stuff. So, i went to the movies. I remember seeing this movie like 3 times that summer in the theater. I saw speed twice. lol. I think alot had to do with me loving Hanks as well as being a history buff. ALso, i was young and impressionable and this movie hits so many interesting notes. Its so long that it really gives you time to get involved with this guys life no matter how fleeting one part gives way to another and so on.

    ALso, compareed to movies they make nowadays…wowee..this movie is a masterpiece by that alone.

    • Well, I am 21, I am not an American, English is not my first language, I had to google most of the people and events Forrest Gump referred to, and still this movie is definitely one of the Top 5 I’ve ever seen.

      I mean, what’s there not to like about this movie? Some may say that it is unrealistic, others argue about the morality of expending the historic events but I thought it was emotionally touching, brilliantly crafted and beautifully acted film every single time I watched it.

  4. Actually, the era depicted is whitewashed & glossed over, it’s a Disney theme park version of American history. I can say that this film is designed for members of my generation who don’t want to deal with the complexity of those times. It valorises stupidity & passivity, while condemning & punishing those who actually wanted to fight the injustices around them. It essentially advises us to simply go along to get along, don’t think too hard about anything, just rely on sentimental images with no depth.

    Definitely one of the most anti-1960s films ever made, in part because it hedges just enough to try & make as many viewers as possible happy without having to think about how they’re being manipulated.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      While I completely agree with your analysis of the film, I also believe (along with Ferris Bueller) that the film is not “evil” or “immoral,” but simply exists as an optimistic text. Like the quote in the article mentions, Gump is a “healing figure” rather than a manipulative one.

  5. Good writing. I think this movie had a very straightforward message about how to “make it” in America. Forest Gump does not have many advantages, all he had was a kind heart, and simple view of the world and of what’s right and wrong, and a quiet determination. As well as several people in life that saw him as a special person.

    Forest Gump goes on to do many great things, amongst the backdrop of history. He’s the little engine that could, and so it sends an inspirational message to the average Joe.

  6. JPargament

    This is a great analysis of a film that has really stoop the test of time. I’d say I see this film on cable at least once every few weeks. Its one of those movies that you don’t need watch start to finish every time because of how many sub-stories it has which also contributes to its cable popularity. Good job.

  7. Mary Awad

    Forrest Gump is a great film that really shows recent American history very well. It also had a capita ting plot which, for a commercial film, is always a good thing. Absolutely wonderful article.

  8. I think it is very interesting that you chose to survey the 1990’s through Forrest Gump. It has a lot of cultural baggage, in that through the brilliant script, the audience gets to relive the nostalgia of being raised throughout some of these time periods. Especially being made in the ’90’s, I agree that this movie had a lot to say in regards to the cultural shifts that were taking place during the time period. This article captures a wide topic quite nicely; good work.

  9. jeremymyers86

    He never went full retard. That’s why it was so powerful.

  10. Elaina Chastain

    This film is a classic. I could literally watch it over and over and over. Hilarity mixed with culture and wisdom that makes your heart leap and weep at the same time. Great analysis!

  11. I think the filmmakers were using Forrest Gump’s innocence and neutrality as a tool to promote their own viewpoints. Interesting post, really got me thinking!

  12. cctavio

    Ok, i have seen this movie two or three times since 1994 but whatever age I was, I never got it. And I still don’t. What’s the point of this movie? Why does everybody love it? I am not a hater at all, i don’t think it sucks, but what is so special about it? It’s just (a veeery unrealistic) story of a naive and unintelligent man. And a love story. And some war scenes.

    • Skipper

      It had a lot to do with when it came out. The original baby boomers were entering their 40s and were no longer the young generation. When that happens people get reflective. This film told the story of their times as history and was the first to really encompass the whole era. It had a lot to do with its commercial success. At around the same time there were a lot of compilation albums of 60s bands coming out, and, in the UK at least, lots of radio stations playing classic rock.

    • Hans Davenport

      For me as someone studying 20th century American history, it brought the subject alive. I also think for people born after WW2 it was popular simply for the nostalgia. Personally I always felt it was a great piece of story telling, a memorable soundtrack, good performances particualarly from Gary Sinise and perhaps more than anything else a funny and entertaining film. I’m not saying its the greatest movie ever made but I think the rise of Forrest and fall of Jenny had more to say about the American condition post WW2 than any other film I’ve seen.

    • John Pena

      I think this article clearly outlines the importance of this movie. Maybe you should read it again.

  13. CharlieHall

    I like the film because Forrest was a simple, decent man who took things at face value. There aren’t many people like that and it’s a refreshing view. He didn’t over analyze things because his mind wasn’t bogged down with things most people are consumed by – finding a hot chick (or man), making money, doing important things, being recognized, etc. He just kind of floated through life and had amazing adventures because he wasn’t seeking out those coveted things. He may have seemed “unintelligent” but I don’t think he was. He saw things for what they were and didn’t rationalize them in an effort to appeal to his ego or deal in subterfuge. There are very few humans like that.

  14. Nat

    Still one of my favorite movies after all of these years. I understand why some people were upset that Forest Gump won best picture, but 1994 was a great year for movies. After it all, it not only gave as The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction, but also The Lion King, Clerks, Ed Wood and North. (Ok, I was joking about the last one, ha ha.)

  15. I think the movie Forrest Gump is simply a love story. While very complex in its mentioning of such story, I think it was showing the trials and tribulations of a man who was crippled but overcame his odds. The film is one I adore.

  16. Was just watching this film last night, fascinates me every time.

  17. I’m 19, I barely lived through the ’90s but this movie takes me to places in American history I just wish I could be present in, different eras are depicted so well it blows me away every time.

  18. Jon Lisi

    Great article on a film that I always found to be overrated (‘Pulp Fiction’ was still robbed of the Oscar, as was ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Quiz Show’), but I admire its defiantly optimistic view of the world and humanity, and the fact that it’s completely original.

  19. The Goldstein

    It’s the best movie I’ve ever watched and it gives you a true view on life. The simpleness creates a whole new layer of depth and makes this a more then just genial movie. However I would credit the writer, Eric Roth here. I could understand if you did not like everything Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis did. However I think it was good.

  20. Herrera

    This movie is so loved because it panders to the wish fulfillment that life could be rewarding without making smart choices.

  21. Lovella

    Probably one of his best performances though I really think since he had just won the year before it should’ve gone to one of the other nominees who didn’t have an Oscar. Hanks himself even seems to think that in his acceptance speech when he says, “I’d like to thank my fellow nominees all of whom are just as deserving if not more so.” which is basically saying, “I just won an Oscar last year and this probably should’ve gone to one of the other nominees who don’t have an Oscar.”

  22. Danny Cox

    This was a very intriguing article to read, well done!

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