Wednesday, 12 June 2013
I rewatched Forrest Gump the other day, for the first time in a shameful number of years. Robert Zemeckis’ tale of a slow-witted Alabama fella' making his way through the major events of the late twentieth century really is a very good film. Tom Hanks embodies the titular role brilliantly; Gump is an engaging and likable character. And yet, I reflected afterwards – why is he?
The way screenwriting is conventionally taught dictates that a protagonist must have one main goal which informs everything he or she does as the plot progresses. Forrest Gump, well, really doesn’t. He doesn’t have much of a direction in life at all. Things just tend to happen to him and he often doesn’t even understand his own reasons for what he does, most notably when he spends three years running across America because he “felt like running”.
It’s also questionable how much Forrest develops as a character. He begins the film witless but well-meaning and ends the film witless but well-meaning. Sure, he may become more comfortable with himself to the point of being able to sleep with love interest Jenny, but is that interesting character development or just an aspect of growing up? He retains his childlike worldview, with his reliance on his mother’s advice, throughout, even long after her death.
Perhaps it’s the simplicity of this optimistic, open-minded worldview that makes him endearing. In a cynical world full of war and politics, what matters to Forrest are are things like fulfilling his promise to Bubba and ensuring Jenny’s happiness. And he's absolutely faithful to these goals – when things go wrong, he doesn't complain, but looks on the bright side and keeps on trying. In the process, he becomes a millionaire, yes, but not through ambition, and perhaps that’s a very relatable fable about what we should value in life.
Yet it’s not the moments when he becomes rich that elicit cheers. These are played more for comedy and the real achievements are when Forrest re-unites with Jenny and when he gets to bring his child up. This is because of the big dramatic question informing everything Forrest does, even when not related to the main “goal” of that sequence – “will Forrest and Jenny get together?”. Forrest is drafted into the Vietnam War to fight for his country, but he writes letters home to Jenny. Forrest becomes a shrimp boat captain to fulfill his promise to Bubba, but he names the boat Jenny. Forrest runs across America for three years, but his love of running began through Jenny’s encouragement – “run, Forrest, run”. Forrest’s devotion to Jenny is a thematic link through everything, drawing together the messy here-and-there of his life, and is a relationship we grow to care about.
And while Forrest may not develop clearly, other characters around him do change for the better – because of him. Every supporting character is memorable, full of individuality, and has some form of arc. A lesser writer wouldn’t have taken such risks as having Forrest’s friend in ‘Nam speak constantly about shrimp throughout his introductory scenes, but it’s hilarious and endearing. Look also at Lieutenant Dan’s introduction – we know exactly what kind of character he is from his brash treatment of other soldiers. The voiceover which gives him some history – “a member of his family had fought and died in every war” – is a brilliant look at the gruff soldier archetype that seems to be setting up for Dan to be the next in line to die. But what we don’t expect is the way that Forrest saves him from his believed ‘destiny’, inadvertently changes his life, and turns him from this hard stereotype into someone much more compassionate. Dan is a much different person by the end of the film, as is Jenny before her death. Forrest changes people for the better, and the film ends with him bringing up his son, and we can only believe he’ll do an excellent job.
At Jenny’s grave, Forrest says “I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.” Like the feather at the beginning and end of the film, Forrest’s journey is a meandering and directionless yet light and fun ride. Nonetheless, it’s very revealing about the world its set in, with a likable central character with a big dramatic question that gets an ultimate result. Forrest may not be the sharpest crayon in the pond, but his kind heart more than makes up for that.
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