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Commentary: Revisiting ‘Forrest Gump’ at 25 — what made it a cultural phenomenon

HANKS
Oscar winner Tom Hanks in “Forrest Gump.”
(Phillip Caruso / Paramount Pictures)

In 1994, moviegoers flocked to “The Flintstones” and “Maverick” in May, and “Speed” and “The Lion King” in June. Then on July 6, Paramount Pictures released “Forrest Gump.”

It was an unusually expensive drama — costing more than $50 million in mid-’90s money — based on a whimsical Winston Groom novel about a simple Southerner who accidentally becomes a firsthand witness to American history, throughout the ’60s and ’70s.

The culture has shifted quite a bit in the 25 years since “Forrest Gump” debuted. (A new two-disc Blu-ray set is available now from Paramount.) It became a phenomenon — a huge commercial hit and a cultural touchstone in ways that seem almost inconceivable now.

“Forrest Gump” topped the box office in its opening weekend, before being replaced by “True Lies” the following week. The movie returned to No. 1 for a week in late July, then was bumped off again by “The Mask” and “Clear and Present Danger.” Then “Forrest Gump” hit the top spot for a third time, for a week in August, and a fourth and fifth time, for two weeks in September.

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It went on to win that year’s best picture Oscar. We’ve become accustomed to best picture winners like “The Shape of Water” and “Moonlight” being modestly budgeted, and released late in the year. But in 1994, this mainstream studio movie with a tricky premise was marketed as an offbeat feel-good summer picture, starring superstar Tom Hanks, directed by a proven hitmaker in Robert Zemeckis.

Can anyone imagine this happening today: A film with these kind of legs, staying at or near the top of the box office charts for three solid months? And a drama, no less? During blockbuster season?

The culture has shifted quite a bit in the 25 years since “Forrest Gump” debuted. And so has the movie’s cultural legacy.

“Forrest Gump” won six Oscars — including director for Zemeckis, actor for Hanks — and it’s been included on multiple AFI “100 Years” best-of lists over the last two decades. Audiences loved “Forrest Gump.” It touches people with its sweeping story about a gentle soul who perseveres, insisting to anyone who’ll listen that, “Life is like a box of chocolates… You never know what you’re gonna get.”

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More discerning movie buffs have mixed opinions, though. The backlash to “Forrest Gump” started during the awards season of 1994 and ’95, when it was pitted against Quentin Tarantino’s hipper “Pulp Fiction.” In direct comparison, Zemeckis’ film seemed more old-fashioned — bordering on reactionary.

That criticism isn’t wholly invalid. Eric Roth’s screenplay sands off the sharper edges of Groom’s novel, making the movie less of a wild adult romp and more of a family-friendly American fable. Zemeckis follows that lead, going for laughs and pathos alike by playing up the contrasts between the happily naive Forrest and the angry activists he meets along the way.

CA.1F.06/ForrestPhoto by Phillip Caruso
Robin Wright in a scene from "Forrest Gump."
(Paramount Pictures)

One of the main complaints about the film is that it appears to be anti-intellectual, and anti-progressive. Forrest’s hippie peers — like the love of his life, Jenny (Robin Wright) — tend to be miserable and strung out, while the unassuming Gump plays football, serves his country in Vietnam, starts a thriving shrimp business and inadvertently launches a fitness movement. The movie seems to argue that ignorance really is bliss.

But to a large extent, “Forrest Gump” isn’t really an expression of values or a guide to a better life. It’s more a poignant, reflective look at how this country survived the tumult of the ’60s and ’70s by rebooting itself every few years, then running full-speed ahead into something new.

The best recurring joke in “Forrest Gump” is fairly subtle: It’s the idea that the average American citizen never seems to remember the movie’s hero, despite the multiple accomplishments that have made him widely famous. It’s as though a nation going through rapid change struggles to keep its own history straight.

This is all heady stuff for a film that came out on a holiday weekend. These days, anyone interested in unpacking a summer movie’s themes had better hope that the latest Marvel picture has something meaningful to say about the responsibilities that come with superpowers. (To be fair, they usually do.)

One of the main reasons “Forrest Gump” was so popular — besides America’s enduring love for Hanks — is that Zemeckis had a facility with slick crowd pleasers aimed at warm-weather audiences. In the ’80s, he directed “Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” back-to-back-to-back. A Steven Spielberg protege, Zemeckis shared his mentor’s knack for using cutting-edge special effects not just to dazzle but also to stir emotions.

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89443 (BC-BPI-DIGITALFX) FINAL COMPOSITE SHOWS PRESIDENT RICHARD M. NIXON AWARDING A PLAQUE TO TOM
Photo composite shows President Nixon awarding a plaque to Tom Hanks' title character in a scene from the movie "Forrest Gump."
(Paramount Pictures)

For all the attention paid at the time to the CGI gimmickry used to insert Hanks into archival footage of historical figures, Zemeckis actually got more mileage out of older Hollywood tricks, like fades and match-cuts. There’s a classical lyricism to “Forrest Gump.” It’s a fast-paced story that still gives viewers moments to breathe — pausing often to show Forrest just sitting, enjoying the place where he is and the company he’s keeping.

It’s also set in an America that’s as riven and factionalized as it is today, yet somehow more comfortable with the craziness. As a product of the relatively nicer ’90s, “Forrest Gump” looks back at the recent past with a perspective informed more by understanding and optimism. Zemeckis and Roth aren’t drawing lines between 1971 and 1994 and saying, “Here’s where all our troubles began.” This isn’t that kind of history lesson.

Because of this, the movie plays different in 2019, where our contemporary politics demands that even fictional characters be clearly labeled by their creators as “winners” or “losers.” The film was analyzed quite a bit back then, but it would likely be even more intensely scrutinized now… until even viewers who enjoyed it would become grouchy and defensive.

“Forrest Gump” haters aren’t wrong to interrogate the movie’s breezy approach to history, or to nitpick the deeper implications of a happy hero who’s not that smart. But audiences then and now have responded to the film’s good heart more than its subtext.

Zemeckis back then knew how to hit the right buttons, to make audiences pine for something they’d lost. And he showed how even the most culturally divisive moments can become unifying with the passage of time — if only because the whole nation experienced them together — another concept foreign to 2019 America.

“Forrest Gump” itself may now be one of those era-signifiers: something that once drove wedges between people, but now brings them together, even if just to argue. Love the movie unconditionally or distrust its motives. Either way, wouldn’t it be nice if this summer had a drama as ambitious as “Forrest Gump,” hanging around in theaters for months, sparking conversations?

Fans and detractors alike have tagged this movie as an exercise in baby boomer nostalgia. Today, though, it may inspire people to miss the bygone days of 1994, when a July weekend at the multiplex had so much to offer.

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