FORREST GUMP *** ?. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Eric Roth from the novel by Winston Groom. Editing, Arthur Schmidt. Photography, Don Burgess. Production design, Rick Carter. Music, Alan Silvestri. Cast: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson, Sally Field. A Paramount release. 142 minutes. Rated PG-13.
In the unquestioned popular hit of the summer of '94, the picaresque life of a neo-Candide from the deep South is appealingly treated in "Forrest Gump" -- up to a point -- as, sitting at a bus stop bench, garrulous Gump's flat, enunciating drawl, relates piecemeal his life and times to strangers.
The procedure is a bit of a cheat: the listeners (and viewers) are simultaneously exposed to Forrest's own, simplistic point of view and to the sophisticated interpretations of the movie-camera, that all-seeing, all-knowing deity. Even so, we sweep the contradictions under the rug and are swept in the wonder-full history of the man from Alabama -- up to a point.
Forrest was named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. As a choice of his single mother (Sally Field, tops) it was an odd one, since nowhere does she evince any racism. Rather, the name is ironically used by the filmmakers as they plop Forrest into the tumultuous 1950-80 decades of civil rights, Vietnam, countercultures, anti-war agitation, political assassinations and an America searching for cohesion and identity.
The gimmick here is that when we meet Forrest, a child with leg-braces, we learn that he has an IQ of 75. The minimum required for entering a public school is 80, but Mama has ways of getting him in.
Called variously "the local idiot" or "stupid," Forrest is neither but rather he is simple-minded a la Matthew 5:3: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." And even then, he has some extraordinary gifts which invalidate the comparison to "Being There," in which Peter Sellers was the totally passive instrument of his ascent.
On the first day of school busing, he makes friends with Jenny -- his unflagging love-to-be -- who is molested by her father and will be in and out o Forrest's life. It is Jenny who urges Forrest to run from bullies. And it is then, in the first of several miracles, that he sprints like greased lightning. Forrest may not quite fathom football, but his speed later leads him to football stardom in high school and at the University of Alabama. Shades of Harold Lloyd in "The Freshman!"
As a child, in Mrs. Grump's boarding house, Forrest had met and taught gyrations to young musician Presley, who soon after became Elvis. As a student, Forrest gets in the same newsreel footage as the defiant segregationist Governor George Wallace. This is done, as in Woody Allen's "Zelig," through remarkable special effects.
The pattern is repeated. Forrest will be a witness to and participant in several of the main events that shaped the period. As an All-American, he meets President Kennedy at the White House. He will also meet Presidents Johnson and Nixon, Mao and other personalities.
After college, Forrest joins the Army, breaks the company's speed record for assembling his rifle, and finds a friend in Bubba (Mykelti Williamson), a black Louisianan who, as an Equal Opportunities buddy, has an IQ like Forrest's and is fixated on shrimp and its fishing.
In Vietnam, the buddies are befriended by Lt. Dan Taylor (the excellent actor-director Gary Sinise). Forrest's very dimness makes him a model soldier. And a hero who, under formidable fire, keeps running back to save many in his platoon.
Repatriated, Forrest becomes a champion ping-pong player, gets the Medal of Honor and finds himself an uncomprehending party at a mammoth antiwar rally. The technical wizardry that makes 1,500 extras look like hundreds of thousands is impressive. The cartoonish caricaturing of the protesters ( cheap laughs and jibes at the expense of veterans, hippies, SDS, Black Panthers) is depressing and like a refutation of "Born on the Fourth of July."
At the rally, as well as before and after it, Forrest is reunited with the troubled, aimless Jenny (Robin Wright) who had turned on, dropped out, been a stripper, hippie, groupie, political activist and a candidate for suicide.
Forrest's ping-pong prowess in China makes him enhance Nixon's policy. The President kindly puts him up in a better hotel. You guessed it, it is the Watergate -- and it is Forrest who alerts the authorities about the break-in.
The miracles go on. Through a fluke of the weather Forrest becomes wealthy from shrimp fishing and richer yet when he invests "in some kind of fruit company" -- Apple computers.
There's more to come, including family life and long runs that criss-cross America. But already, in the shorter run "Forrest Gump" had become fairly bloated, monotonous and repetitious, what with its sentimentality, its unalterably saintly man-child hero and its one-gag essence. We may feel warmly about Forrest's holy simplicity, but what does it really all mean? And what do we learn from this superficial tour of "Big Moments in Recent American History" that we did not know already?
The movie, thanks to audience-pleasing gags and dramatics, thanks to excellent, elaborate production values, and above all, thanks to Tom Hanks's gaunt play-acting -- it takes intelligence to portray uninteligence -- manages to camouflage its shallowness and to entertain. But it plays better than it really is. Its concentration on technical sleight-of-hand and on a tour-de-force performance comes at the cost of implications and reverberations. It's what computerese calls WYSIWYG: what you see is what you get.