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Caught on the wind, a small white feather swirls and dips its way from sky to ground, rising and falling and gliding along until coming to rest on the worn and muddied running shoes of a young man (Tom Hanks) at a bus stop. He reaches and collects the wispy treasure and presses it in the pages of a Curious George children’s book he keeps in his hard-case travel bag. On his lap is a box of sweets with a big gold bow keeping it sealed, but not for long. Either a gift to him or meant for someone else, the temptation is too much and he pops the lid, offering the first sample to a nurse sitting beside him reading a magazine. “Mamma always said,” he reflects in her direction, “life is like a box of chocolates. Ya never know what you’re gonna get.” From there he spins his tale, recounting his adventures, ostensibly to the woman, but more for himself, starting with his first pair of shoes–magic shoes that would take him anywhere.
Right away we sense there is something different about the man who introduces himself as Forrest, Forrest Gump. Before he even speaks, we see the innocence in his expression, the meticulous way he handles the found feather, and even the almost dutiful manner of his posture. When he does utter his first words, while simple for certain, there is an honesty about them, a kind of trust that warms him instantly to us. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also Tom Hanks, but that’s just great casting.
Forrest tells of his youth, when he wore braces on his legs and lived in a big house where his mother rented out rooms to those passing by, some more famous, or soon to be, than others. From the start, little Gump has a way about him, and while some, like the school principal, might call it below normal intelligence, he is nonetheless highly influential. For example, while a talented young musician takes a room at the house, he plays a catchy song that gets Forrest dancing. The little jitter is peculiar but eye-catching, and when that guest turns out to be Elvis “the Pelvis” Presley, that dance takes on a whole new look and propels hims to super stardom. All thanks to Forrest and his magic shoes.
Meanwhile, little Forrest meets a girl on the bus to school, the only one that didn’t shy away from him because of his scary and kooky leg braces. Her name is Jenny (Robin Wright) and she grows to become the only true love in his life, even if she can’t seem to find her own way as she goes. There’s is a love that is eternally innocent in a world overrun by anything but.
As Forrest goes through life, he meets and interacts and become a part of myriad historical events throughout American history during the 1960s to 1980s, from segregation of schools to smiley face T-shirt. Forrest is witness to much but is forever unaware of his impact, going through his days with only Jenny on his mind. He serves in Vietnam, represents his country in international ping-pong, plays collegiate football under Bear Bryant, but all the while he is simply counting the days until he see’s the woman he loves again. His adventures are amazing, and allow him to see the growth of this country through turbulent times, a spectator unknowing of their importance but influencing many. The story of Forrest Gump is often touching, sometimes funny, but always memorable. His relationships define him, from his highly protective mother who teaches him about identity, dignity, and the heartbreaking reality of sacrifice and destiny to Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), his superior officer in combat, who teaches him about honor, respect, regret, hope and forgiveness, to his best friend Bubba, a similarly simple man with simple dreams of owning a shrimp boat. These are the people that guide him, who affect him, who are in turn forever changed, even if for a short time. Directed by visionary filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, employing incredible state-of-the art special effects, Gump’s journey is one that many will cherish, and most will not soon forget.
The Vietnam War is over. Lieutenant Dan, unlike every man in his family before, did not die in battle and therefore feels somewhat cheated out of what he considers his own destiny. He blames Forrest for this, as he was the one who carried him off the battlefield and into safety. Worse, he lost both legs below the knees and is now confined to a wheelchair, wallowing in misery. Forrest, ever the optimist, fails to see the sorrow in this, rather rejoicing in the company of a friend and does all he can to show his former Lieutenant that life is still precious. Eventually, the two separate, but not before, almost in jest, Dan remarks that if Forrest ever becomes a shrimp boat captain, as he promised the now passed on Bubba he would do, he would be his first mate. As luck would have it, or rather as Gump’s destiny assures, this inevitably occurs as he buys a shrimp boat with winnings from his ping-pong exploits and takes to the waters. Not long after, while slipping nearby the shore, there on a wooden dock, sitting in his wheelchair, is the long haired Lieutenant Dan, smiling. So excited to see his old friend, Forrest leaps from the boat and swims ashore, leaving the boat to crash. But it’s okay. From there, Lt. Dan takes a command and sees the success of the shrimp boat as challenge at first, and then a new destiny, and finally, as a hurricane threatens to sink them, a battle with nature and, at least in Gump’s eyes, God himself.
Lieutenant Dan is not a religious man, but he is a man of honor. A hard-nosed soldier when we meet him, he is dedicated to the service of his country and the leadership of the men under his command. He isn’t interested in the politics of the war he is fighting, only that he does his part supremely well and his men are well taken care of. When Forrest comes to his side as the battle he is losing slowly whittles away his troops, Lt. Dan–his legs mangled by bullet fire–screams at Gump to leave him be so he can die with his fallen soldiers. We see that Dan is a proud figure, unconcerned with personal safety and more driven to ensure anyone who is still alive, including Gump, get away as quickly as possible. His destiny is in the jungle, bleeding out from enemy attack. Forrest’s selfless act to rescue him and the others is of no consequence to Dan while it’s happening, only that he’s is begin robbed of his fate. It sours him immediately, and while they are bunk mates at the army hospital, he is at first indignant, ignoring Gump, then angry, spewing vitriol at him for cheating him out of his destiny, fuming about what ever is he going to do now.
Some time later, when they meet again, his anger has turned to bitterness, living in a cheap hotel and sustaining himself on alcohol. Forrest stays with him through New Year’s holiday and we see that Gump is eternally under the command of his army Lieutenant, despite his horribly disheveled appearance and total loss of dignity and honor. As we’ve come to expect and trust in Forrest, there is a sweet obliviousness about him that can’t see the pain his friend is in or the manner in which that sorrow is tearing him down. But conversely, that same sweet obliviousness is exactly what Lt. Dan is in need of, a person that doesn’t see him for who he has become, but simply for who he is. This leads the despondent Lt. Dan to wax sardonically about the empty counsel of a priest at the clinic where he and other veterans meet, claiming the Father hopes Dan will find Jesus so one day he can walk beside God in Heaven. It is of course, the “walk” part of this encounter that irks the troubled man and it gives him more fuel to rile against and blame anyone for his condition, even a deity he has no faith in. Forrest doesn’t try to pacify or preach to his friend, nor does he have the ability to do so. That’s not his role in the relationship, though he does, in essence save him. We don’t realize this until a short time later when two party girls come to the hotel room and one of the girls is unable to arouse Gump simply because this is not how it works for Forrest. She accuses him of having lost his manhood in Vietnam and the other asks if he is “stupid or something.” This suddenly incenses Lt. Dan, surprising the girls and the viewer. He tosses one to the bed and screams at them to never call him stupid. The girls, drunk and horny, giggle and flee, shouting insults as they go, leaving Lt. Dan splayed on the floor and Forrest standing stunned above him, only concerned that he had ruined the party because girl tasted like cigarettes.
This leads to the shrimp boat and our chosen moment when we finally see the real impact of Forrest Gump. Lt. Dan, taking control of the boat is hoisted high on the ship’s mast, facing the hurricane with wild abandon, hurling a slew of verbal challenges as he thinks the storm and God are trying and take him down, vowing they will never succeed. It’s powerful and moving because we see that Lt. Dan has finally come to the impasse where he either accepts what he is or let it totally and completely destroy him. The scene is significant, especially for how Zemeckis frames it. Since Dan has been confined to the wheelchair, we have always looked down upon him. In fact, in one scene in a bar, his head is barely visible over the counter. He is small, weak and shrinking away, far removed from how we first met him in Vietnam. Forrest always bends down when talking with Dan, keeping himself and therefore us in a kind of uncomfortable position but one that allows Dan to see eye to eye with Gump. Before the storm, Dan takes his position on the trawler’s outrigger, and we begin to see not only some change, but symbolism.
By putting Lt. Dan on the boom, Zemeckis sets the character in an unexpected place, one that seems precarious and unquestionably dangerous, traits that Lt. Dan thrives on, at least while as a soldier. In no uncertain terms, our immediate reaction is fear for him. But he is actually comfortable, powerful, instilled even. Straddling the rigging, he is virile and the imagery is clear. The taunt ropes jetting out from between his legs are subtle (or maybe not!) but effective reminders of what he is feeling and how we are meant to perceive him. Either that or we’ve been spending too much time searching the “steamy” tag on Netflix. But more than this, Lt. Dan is gaining back some element of control over his fate. The ocean and stormy seas are often used as metaphors for life and one’s journey through it. Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea uses the ocean as a symbol of life and the boats upon it as the people traveling on it, some testing and fighting the waters and others silently letting it swallow them whole. Lt. Dan is about to fight it. His hand is wrapped tight around a rope, which for all intents and purposes represents the mainstay, the supporting rope along the main sail of sailing ship. Behind him, the American flag waves proudly, like he is marching into battle, him the flag bearer. When the hurricane strikes, he does not bow dow nor weaken his resolve. He thrashes out at the wind and whatever supernatural harbinger invoking it, cackling like a mad dog. All the while, Forrest is far below, scurrying in fear. When it’s over, their’s in the only boat that survives, the only ship to last the storm, and because so, dominate the shrimping and in the end make them extremely wealthy. But the moment is not complete until a time later, when the sea is calm and the men are on the boat again. Lt. Dan is on deck now, sitting in his wheelchair. He says to his friend, “Forrest. I never thanked you for saving my life,” and then smiles warmly before lifting himself up and over the gunwale and into the peaceful water below. From there he swims gently on his back, looking up to the heavenly sky. What’s especially interesting about this sequence is how the view literally shifts to what Forrest is seeing. Before Dan jumps in, they are close to shore, land on either side of them, the afternoon sky pale blue. Once he begins his swim, the bayou becomes the open ocean and the sky swells with color and hints at a more spiritual intervention. One might think it is a continuity error, but it is surely not. This is what the eyes of the innocent see, and most of us don’t even notice because for this one moment, we are Forrest as well, and we are happy our friend Lieutenant Dan has made it through his storm.
Forrest Gump is a remarkable story, and sure it feels a little manipulative at times, a little convenient at others, but it is earnest and sincere. Most anyone watching can find something to relate to and connect with how our hero makes his way along life’s rough seas. Hanks won his second Academy Award for his performance, and there are times when what he does with Forrest is almost magical, especially when meeting his son for the first time. Surrounding Forrest are the people who love him and have been changed by him, some with him at the end and others not. Lieutenant Dan is one of our favorite characters, and his arc is perhaps most heartfelt and satisfying.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Winston Groom (novel), Eric Roth (screenplay)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise