How does a movie go from being a triumph to a punchline? The multi-Oscar-winning hit Forrest Gump experienced what later movies like Crash, Juno, Little Miss Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire would go through, suffering such a strong backlash that in some circles, it’s all but impossible to find anyone who even likes the movie, let alone thinks it deserved to be named Best Picture of 1994. And yet in other circles, Forrest Gump remains beloved, and on its original release, it was widely considered a breath of fresh air: a summer blockbuster with wit, heart, and style, sweeping through recent American history with an eye toward what’s united us over the years, both as citizens and as moviegoers. Then as Forrest Gump’s popularity exploded, objections mounted about the shameless emotional manipulations by director Robert Zemeckis, the way Eric Roth’s script took a “We Didn’t Start The Fire” approach to the Baby Boomer timeline, and the troubling implications of a saintly hero whose ignorance and blind luck makes him so much happier than those overthinking, narcissistic hippies.
So does Forrest Gump suck, or not? The new double-disc Blu-ray edition complicates the question. Zemeckis has long been undervalued as a visual stylist, but the raft of how’d-they-do-that? features included in the Forrest Gump BD set helps clarify what he brings to the table. The more obtrusive special effects—like inserting Forrest Gump into real footage of historical events—look clumsier now, but Zemeckis has never gotten enough credit for how he uses more old-school Hollywood techniques like fades and match-cuts to create lovely, lyrical moments. Forrest Gump is beautifully paced, with a surprising amount of time dedicated to the characters just drinking in their surroundings, often while expressly isolated from others in the frame. Zemeckis also slyly introduces a recurring motif of people and objects getting hit at the end of shots, illustrating the idea of a generation getting pummeled by one life-changing event after another. (The same idea is evoked by Roth’s recurring motif of having nobody remember Forrest Gump, in spite of the many times he’s been on TV over the years; some see that as a continuity flaw, but it’s more reflective of the collective amnesia that seems to hit society in the wake of lurching change.) And manipulative or not, Zemeckis knows how to hit the right emotional buttons to make audiences pine for something they’ve lost, even as he’s showing how the past can be pretty lousy.
Nevertheless, Forrest Gump haters are hardly off the mark. While Zemeckis and Roth don’t spare the darker side of the Baby Boom era—the racism, the violence, the drugs—Forrest’s fanciful tall-tale narration works against the movie’s mood as often as it enhances it. His monotonal, missing-the-point observations either oversell the irony or undercut other characters’ genuine pain. And Gumpian maxims like “Life is like a box of chocolates” and “Stupid is as stupid does” remain as grating as the cast’s crazily exaggerated Southern accents. The biggest problems with the movie are Tom Hanks’ performance as Forrest Gump and the whole conception of the character. Hanks’ strength as an actor has always been his innate savvy, which gets taken away when he’s asked to play a simpleton (either mildly retarded or autistic, depending on how viewers read his speech and body language). Though the movie was pitched with a line about “seeing the world through the eyes of Forrest Gump,” the character has such a limited point of view and benign reaction to events that he really doesn’t “see” anything. What makes Forrest Gump so appealing to some and so annoying to others is that it’s anchored by a featureless lump that audiences can shape—and rate—however they like.
Key features: Hours of featurettes, plus two commentary tracks.