by Dr. Alvin Burstein
with J. Nelson
It seems fair to say that Forest Gump has achieved the status of an American classic. Fans in an ABC poll voted the film the best of all Best Pictures over the last decades. The film manages to evoke laughter, heartache, and a sense of depth. This remarkable combination results from literary and cinematic devices that deserve our attention.
The story is book-ended by an image of a feather drifting, floating hither and yon as it slowly falls to the ground. It is ultimately picked up by Forest, who inserts it carefully into his childhood copy of Curious George, from which his mother early read to him. The emphasis accorded these images urges us to wonder about its meaning, a question to which we will return.
Aristotle taught us the comic protagonist is one that the reader or spectator feels superior to, so we chuckle at his social awkwardness and concrete thinking. But Gump not only has a name that makes us smile, he is intellectually disabled and, at the beginning of his story, crippled and wearing clumsy leg braces. His early classmates—except for Jenny—regard him as a target for bullying, evoking our sympathy.
In a classic comic move, this simple-minded man achieves extraordinary feats as a football and (don’t laugh) ping-pong player, and stumbles into remarkable acts of heroism in Viet Nam and financially successful ventures afterward. All in all, a classic Chaplinesque format. The character pulls us along in both delight and pain. “Tom Hanks may be the only actor who could have played the role,” said Roger Ebert, “The performance is a breathtaking balancing act between comedy and sadness.”
Forest Gump’s clearly fantastical history is literally woven into prominent historical events, the kinds that are deeply inscribed in our emotional memories: Gump is shown on in an actual newsreel on the occasion of the admission the first African American into the University of Alabama, he is photo-shopped into a real Medal of Honor award ceremony presided over by Lyndon Johnson, he is on the scene during the Watergate burglary that brought down the Nixon White House, he is photo-shopped into a newsreel of a reception given for an All Stars’ football team given by President Kennedy, etc.
This kind of interweaving of fiction and historical accounts has been explored and elaborated by the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, in his award-winning trilogy, Time and Narrative. Ricoeur sees this interplay between fiction and fact as facilitating fiction’s ability to help its audience experience alternative worlds, enriching the reader/viewer’s empathic abilities and psychological growth. Using this powerful tool, Forest Gump focuses our attention on the existential issue of the tension agency and chance, choosing and being externally controlled, in human affairs.
The story portrays Gump as having an enormous impact on others’ lives and of achievements that would ordinarily require and reflect extraordinary motivational focus. But Gump stumbles into them. He has no idea what was involved in volunteering for military duty in Viet Nam, nor, for that matter, what the nature of the conflict was, beyond walking in the jungle.
When his GI buddy, Bubba, proposes that Forest join him in a post-war career in shrimp fishing, Forest matter of factly says, “OK.” He sets off on a three year run, without a plan, without meaning to, and ends it on impulse, without knowing why. In short, he cites his mother’s mantra that life is like a box of chocolates, “…you never know what you are going to get.”
His readiness to accept all that happens to him, close brushes with death; involvement with world-shaking events, and tragic loss is, in its own way charming and appealing.
We are reminded of the Jungian archetype of the “Fool” who in one theoretical incarnation, embraces the serendipity and capriciousness of life by experiencing it on its own terms, accepting what comes without judgment, neither struggling to change it nor wailing to the heavens about it. This is strangely similar to the modern psychological emphasis on mindfulness. Forrest seems often blissfully free from and immune to social prejudice, competitive malice, or self-loathing. He is not burdened to intervene at every step, nor does he make the mistake so common for those in the American culture of perceiving control where he has none.
Forrest’s approach to life’s adversity is contrasted by the story lines for Lieutenant Dan, who angrily rejects the losses of his life, and Forrest’s beloved Jenny who is driven to escape her life.
Lieutenant Dan, who was supposed to die with honor on a field of battle, struggles through his hero’s journey after losing both legs and sinking into depression, a showdown with God, and then finally making peace with himself. He builds the shrimp business and makes Forrest a wealthy man investing the proceeds.
Jenny’s drive to escape is highlighted in the scene when, joined by Forest, she is trying to hide from her sexually abusive alcoholic father. “I wish I could be a bird and fly away!” she says. Her life is a series of self-destructive rebellions, in sharp contrast with Forest’s unplanned achievements.
Jenny asks Forrest if he was ever afraid in Viet Nam, and it is in this scene that we glimpse the depth of what supports this simple man. “Yes. Well, I… I don’t know. Sometimes it would stop raining long enough for the stars to come out … and then it was nice. It was like, just before the sun goes to bed down on the bayou, those million sparkles on the water. Like that mountain lake, it was so clear Jenny. It looked like there were two skies, one on top of the other. And then the desert, when the sun comes up, I couldn’t tell where heaven stopped and the earth began, it was so beautiful.” Forrest’s simple observations connect us with the universal, and we feel it gives some comfort to Jenny, and to us.
The emotional climax of the film is Forest’s discovery that Jenny had born his son, who is “normal,” and Jenny’s decision to, finally, accept Forest’s love for her, both of them knowing she is fatally ill. They marry but very quickly we see she is dying.
After Jenny’s death, Forrest devotes himself to parenting his son. The film ends with Forest junior boarding the school bus, mirroring the opening of the autobiography that constitutes the movie. As his son climbs onto the bus, Forest says, “I will be waiting for you,” and the son introduces himself to the driver in the same words that his father had used decades before.
The film leaves us teetering on the brink of unanswered questions: Will his son’s life continue to mirror the father’s? To what extent will agency and contingency play roles in the son’s life… play in ours? To what extent are we floating feathers or authors of ourselves? To what extent can we choose?