pPolitical scorn has embarrassed Forrest Gump for two decades now, with the most common source of critique being the film’s glimpse of the rise (or return) of the American right in the mid-’90s, a revolution led by Newt Gingrich, a Southerner like Gump, although a considerably more blustery one at that. The attacks aren’t unfair – for a film that sometimes aggrandizes itself on a second-by-second basis, its social conscious is valid critical fodder, and the film’s exclusionary attitude toward gender and racial unrest proposes an almost oblivious Southern wait-and-see gentility toward civil disobedience. Gump is in fact an almost willfully obedient motion picture, with its then-new-school technology a masquerade for its rigorous cinematic traditionalism.
A traditionalism that extends well beyond politics, mind you, and into the film’s stylistic mindset, with the warlock necromancy on display in the film’s proclivity for inserting Gump into history serving as a ruse more than a genuine emotional achievement. It’s showy material designed to mollify the lifelessness of the surrounding cinematic environment. And, if we’re at the business of encircling the film’s politics like a vulture, we ought to also admit that stability, or sense, of political message is not one of the film’s features to begin with. The truth is that Forrest Gump is afflicted with a case of the jitters, flickering maddeningly between gleeful open-hearted sentimentality and cruel, churlish character-assault without any expressive reason for why.
In 2016, America’s cultural love affair with the film, itself old enough to fall in love now, seems more like the hazy, vaguely embarrassing propped-up pop-culture trick of the light it truly was. Better for all of us, admittedly, for although it is tempting to reductively lambaste Robert Zemeckis’ film as a stultifyingly sanctimonious trip down memory lane, the film is actually quite a bit more beguilingly troublesome that that, and not in the bent, fascinating way many of history’s greatest films threaten to immolate themselves stylistically. No, Forrest Gump is actually quite a structurally broken work, didactic in spaces and depraved in moments, and chomping at the bit to swallow itself in indecipherable tonal shifts with no indication that the atonality of the production was in any way a meaningful attempt to evoke the messiness of life itself.
Although the torment begins with Eric Roth’s disastrously mangled screenplay (adapted from a book by Winston Groom), the inescapable thematic pandemonium of the picture descends into all facets of the production. Take Tom Hanks’ frankly ghoulish treatment of a character so impossible to pigeonhole that casting a dozen different actors to play the gargoyle may have been the only logical choice. No one else fares better, excepting possibly the snappish, openly campy Gary Sinise who is visibly the only member of the cast to settle into the warped, assaultive mode this undulatingly silly fable ought to be played in.
Worst of all may be Robert Zemeckis’ remote inability to shoehorn his usually playful, sometimes rueful filmmaking into his first truly dramatic expedition as a director. His prior films, like the sublime Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, were warped techie exercises with an eye for not only upending B-genres but swirling around in the aromas of biting anti-nostalgia. Those precedents do unearth themselves in Forrest Gump from time to time, but the call of the “serious” gilded statuesque nudist beckoned most shriekingly, resulting in a lopsided work with a heart for both melodrama and scabrous satire and a skill for neither. Some refer to the film’s criticism as evidence for the death of irony in American life, a hogwash that belies the death of irony in Forrest Gump, a work that is far too incohesive in its rebuttal of emotionally hollow sermonizing to write off as an unabashedly ironic treatment of mid-century American life.
In fact, the moments of irony in the film reveal a mean-spirited treatment of Forrest himself in certain scenes that speak to a malignant asocial opprobrium on the screenplay’s part. Here’s a potential tone for the film, if it insists. But it doesn’t even benefit from the courage of its occasionally ironic convictions; the film is indifferently, inconstantly ironic, rather than unremittingly, astringently so. It’s a little like calling upon the ghost of irony to place a thin sheet of plastic pseudo-satire over your production so audiences embarrassed by the histrionic drama of the piece won’t feel so mush chagrin about being smitten with the film in the first place.
Irony aside, the other two-thirds of the film is as gruesomely saccharine of an Oscarbait picture as you’ll find, stunted in its overbearing allegorical desires and never meaningfully capable of pursing any probity as either social parable or, more importantly, scintillating slice of cinema. Zemeckis’ colorful directorial style has been siphoned out into the vacant monotone of its cover-all-bases “let’s put Forrest into history” inserts, useless as anything other than a now-faded technical marvel. The manic energy Zemeckis masters time and time again in less self-important films vanishes in a puff of pompous, throat-clearing smoke. While I cannot defend the film’s politics, it seems that the film is only less capable of mounting its own defense on that front. And, critic of the populist Right though I may be, I assuredly can defend the film even less than I can go to bat for its ostensible, ill-defined views.