Americans are obsessed with mobility. Traveling from point A to point B, whether those destinations are geographical, spiritual, financial, or whatever, governs our lives. Success simply means getting where you want to go. And we're all going somewhere, whether we realize it or not.
We are bodies in motion trying to stay in motion. "Where is this relationship headed?" "My life needs some direction." "How did I get here?" We waste money on psychiatry when what we really need is vector analysis. We salivate over sleek automobiles and ascribe desirable personality traits to their owners. We bet on Thoroughbreds and greyhounds. We patronize movies with titles like Speed, and have elevated the chase scene to high art. We foul air and pave wilderness and pollute water, and we spend fortunes on fuel and maintenance and insurance to keep our modes of transport moving on the ground, in the sky, through the sea. Through the years our heroes have always been men and women on the move -- cowboys, aviators, astronauts, athletes. Paul Revere. Lewis and Clark. The Wright brothers. Lindbergh. Amelia Earhart. Neil Armstrong. Jesse Owens. Mark Spitz. FloJo. Secretariat.
Bad things happen if we stop moving. Look at O.J. Simpson, whose flight last month provided powerful insight into the convoluted workings of the American psyche: Your wife is dead, you're a fugitive, your career is history, the evidence is mounting against you, the law is closing in, there's nowhere in the world you can hide. What do you do? You hop into your car with your best friend and go for a spin. Tramps like us, baby we were born to run. The sight of that white Bronco tailed by a phalanx of law enforcement vehicles as it tooled down Highway 91 to the cheers of thousands was one of those surreal televised images you know you will remember forever, like the pained expression on Oswald's face when he took the bullet from Jack Ruby, or that lone Chinese student demonstrator daring the tanks to run him over in Tiananmen Square. It was the ultimate rolling curtain call for a celebrity whose claim to fame was his uncanny ability to run away from trouble.
Forrest Gump, the slow-talking, simple-minded hero of the sublime movie of the same name, is the motion-picture embodiment of this mobility ethic. Forrest can't do much, but he sure can run. His feet bail him out whenever his brain is overmatched, which is pretty often. He has O.J.'s speed, but not his dark side. Gump is a guileless lamb in a world overrun by wolves, an idiot savant incapable of duplicity. He's loyal, trustworthy, generous, and honest. He's Rain Man, Chance the gardener, and Mr. Deeds all rolled into one.
From the cotton fields of his rural hometown to the football fields of the University of Alabama to the killing fields of Vietnam (Gump takes everything as it comes; he even has kind words for the war in Southeast Asia: "The good thing about Vietnam was there was always someplace to go and something to do"), Forrest Gump tracks this pilgrim's progress through three tumultuous decades in American history. Along the way the character teaches Elvis to dance, meets three presidents in the White House, wins a Congressional Medal of Honor, and becomes a millionaire tycoon. Director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit) judiciously metes out the special effects to create an epic modern-day fable. The shots of Gump mooning LBJ, helping John Lennon come up with the lyrics for "Imagine" during an interview with Dick Cavett, and unwittingly tipping off the authorities to the Watergate break-in look amazingly real. It is audacious, inspired lunacy and stunning filmmaking. Whereas in Roger Rabbit and the Back to the Future trilogy Zemeckis employed his formidable bag of tricks to make the stories more fantastic, this time around he uses them to make his film more realistic, melding Gump into footage with the documentarylike feel of real recorded history, similar to the techniques Woody Allen employed in Zelig.
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But the effects are only part of Zemeckis's tool kit. He works in some breathtaking shots of the American landscape, from lush bayous to arid deserts and pristine mountain lakes. His footage of a legless Vietnam vet strapped to the top of the mast of a shrimping boat, defying God to sink the vessel as it sails headfirst into Hurricane Carmen, has the weight of myth.
Tom Hanks is an absolute marvel as Gump. His performance here puts his Academy Award-winning turn in Philadelphia to shame. If you thought Hanks was great in Big, wait until you see this movie. It's his finest work yet, on par with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Peter Sellers in Being There.
Unfortunately, the screenplay by Eric Roth (Mr. Jones, Memories of Me) nosedives into maudlin tearjerker country in the final act. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Roth's work, which is characterized by a soft spot for cheap sentimentality. Forrest Gump is no exception. For the first hour and a half or so, Roth keeps everything moving along swimmingly. But for some strange reason he apparently loses faith in the inherent strength of his story, and opts for the big Terms of Endearment-fatal illness ending. Suddenly the film morphs from a heart-tugging, wildly imaginative adventure into a weepy, manipulative love story. It takes both Hanks and Zemeckis at the peak of their powers to prevent the movie from going under. They do.
Roth's lachrymose writing cannot dim Gump's luster. This is a character for the ages, a classic underdog hero. Capra would have been proud. Forrest Gump has an innate ability to size up confusing situations and figure out a way to get through them; he is tenacious, sincere, patriotic, and unfailingly optimistic. And he's a running fool who knows better than to stop moving.That is why we are destined to love Forrest Gump. He is what we all want to be. If only he could have arrived in time to help