1994—it wasn’t that long ago. Or was it? It was a time before iPhones, YouTube, Monica Lewinsky, WMDs, and Honey Boo-Boo. The tech bubble was still a glimmer in Alan Greenspan’s eye. It was in the Spring of that year that I remember seeing a trailer for a forthcoming Tom Hanks film with the unlikely title Forrest Gump. I figured it was some weirdo prestige project that a big-name actor was doing for some indie cred, and would never, ever be a commercial success. But a few months later, I witnessed a crowd of teary-eyed viewers streaming out of a screening of Forrest Gump, clutching Kleenexes. Something was clearly going on.
As it turns out, Tom Hanks’s portrayal of a Candidean Southern idiot tapped an incredibly rich vein of boomer nostalgia and regret, portraying the traumatic experience of American life in the 1960s and 1970s in a way that audiences found irresistible. The film grossed an astonishing $677 million and won six academy awards.
This nostalgic movie, though, has been around long enough to become the subject of nostalgia itself. With the benefit of two decades’ hindsight, Forrest Gump appears to be a peculiar artifact of the mid-1990s, a time when the battle over the legacy of the 1960s was still in its most feverish phase. Bill Clinton, the draft-dodging, pot-not-inhaling “Slick Willie,” had just been elected to office a year and a half earlier, and he was destined to face down a revolt of conservative Republicans who saw themselves as the last defenders of family values against an insidious secular humanism. In the Summer of 1994, healthcare reform was bleeding its death of a thousand cuts, and Newt Gingrich was gearing up to ride a wave of populist wrath against Washington to take control of the House. The popularity of Forrest Gump, then, must be viewed in the cultural and political context of its time—as a telling of the recent past that resonated with a fairly large number of people, to say the least.
And what a telling it is. The film has a pretty simple moral subtext—patriotic Americans who do what they’re told and believe in Jesus get rich, while sluts get AIDS and die. But the film evinces warmth, compassion, and sincerity in conveying the message, which is a big part of its charm. Gump grows up in the segregated South, and despite his evident learning disability he is able to be mainstreamed into a class with “normal” students because his devoted mother is willing to sleep with the principal. (“Your momma sho does care about your education, son!”) He befriends a girl named Jenny, who is savagely molested by her father (“a very loving man”), and he goes on to become a successful athlete in part, it seems, because of his experience running from those who taunted him as a child. He later serves in the Army during Vietnam and befriends another Southern boy, creatively named “Bubba,” who also seems to suffer from a learning disability of some kind or another.
The genius of Forrest Gump is that it can play all sides, which is undoubtedly a major reason for its success in melting the hearts of liberal and conservative viewers alike. The Old South of the 1950s is no paradise—there is the injustice that Mrs. Gump faces in getting a good education for her son, the abuse that Jenny endures, the cruelty Gump encounters for having a disability. Then there is also the Vietnam War, which is at least implicitly portrayed as negative in the film, even if it does not take a very clear stance on the issue.
But throughout, Forrest Gump stands in for the audience. He is the good-hearted simpleton who came from the most intransigently racist quarter of the South, yet seems completely unaware of racism—he doesn’t understand when another kid talks about “coons,” and he doesn’t hesitate for a second to befriend Bubba, who is black. He wanders through the radical tableaux of an anti-war march in Washington, without understanding the militancy of some cartoonish black radicals (“I’m sorry for ruining your Black Panther party”). Notably, the leftist that Jenny is dating is a male chauvinist pig, which is actually one of the finer points of realism in the film.
As the movie progresses, Gump’s own innocence allows him to triumph where others, soiled by the events of the 1960s, spiral into misery. A crippled and self-pitying Lt. Dan becomes a bitter alcoholic. Jenny goes from nude folk singer to coke-bedraggled ledge jumper. With his faith, sincerity, and limited understanding of the world, Gump somehow stumbles into celebrity and fortune, winning accolades again for his running (in this case, across the country) and investing in “some fruit company” (Apple). Through simplicity and old-fashioned good luck, he is richly rewarded by the free market. (He even inadvertently spawns the slogan “Shit Happens” and the smiley face icon, generating riches for other entrepreneurs.)
Through it all, though, Gump remains humble and pious. He mows the lawn for the local church. He has one sexual indiscretion in his entire life, which results in the birth of his son, but otherwise his record is spotless. Despite the sins of its historical past, Greenbow, Alabama remains the hearth of decency and family values. One of Gump’s most famous lines—“I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is”—offers a totally irresistible homily to the common man, a sturdy and reliable person who sees and understands things a lot of smarty-pants elites don’t.
In the end, Forrest Gump ties up the fraught inheritance of the 1960s and the boomer generation with a neat bow. Gump shares his business earnings with Bubba’s impoverished black family, who get the comeuppance of having a white servant in their newfound prosperity. (Justice!) Lt. Dan conquers his demons, gets some new legs, and marries an Asian woman, which shows that he’s gotten over being racist. (Diversity!) A penitent Jenny comes back to Greenbow and becomes a hippie sort-of virginal bride in a white dress—and Gump nurses her through her dying days.
When the two first met again after years apart, she was a single mom in Savannah, Georgia, herself a symbol of the breakdown of the traditional family and the movement of women into the workforce during the 1970s. Jenny has redeemed herself through motherhood and sobriety, but she can’t escape the past. It’s 1982, and she has a disease that the doctors don’t know how to treat. Anyone in the audience in the mid-1990s, when public consciousness was saturated with awareness of HIV/AIDS, knew exactly what that meant. She has become a casualty of the libidinous excesses of the counterculture and the sexual revolution, and it’s a good thing that simple, faithful Forrest is there to raise little Forrest, because there is no hope for Jenny.
Forrest Gump works so brilliantly because it is an extremely simple moral allegory, a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress that refracts an incredibly tumultuous period in American history through the quest of an earnest everyman. For Americans who were still trying to sort out the implications of the 1960s, the film offered a plausible answer. One has to remember that the 1980s and early 1990s had plenty of their own traumas, between the emergence of HIV, the devastating impact of crack and deindustrialization, and a seemingly unmanageable rise of violent crime. Many Americans concluded that the country had gotten off on the wrong track in a serious way, and an abandonment of traditional values seemed most to blame. If we had all been like Forrest Gump, maybe things would not have gone to shit.
But that answer papers over all the struggles over race, feminism, civil rights, and economic change that actually drove the transformation of American society in this period, reducing the historical narrative to a fable about personal morality that posits an innocent white guy as the ideal American. This is not to suggest that Robert Zemeckis should have directed The Pruitt-Igoe Myth in 1994 instead, but simply to note that there is a very good reason why the film captured the hearts of millions when it did. In a world gone wrong, people crave simple answers for complex questions, and Hollywood is there to give them the history they want.