“Forrest Gump” Offers A Dangerous Vision Of Political Activism

I suppose an article about Forrest Gump does not seem particularly timely. Robert Zemeckis’ beloved movie, starring Tom Hanks and Robin Wright, will reach the ripe old age of 25 in July. The film was nominated for six Oscars when it was released and is still considered by many to be a beloved classic. I fervently shared their admiration until I saw it again a few days ago. During this re-watch, I noticed a few things that unnerved me as a 2019 viewer.

It’s not hard to see why Americans love Forrest Gump. The film is excellently directed, expertly edited and exquisitely acted. Nostalgia is critical to this adoration. The story spans decades of American history, restaging numerous time periods and historical events that span from the 1950s to the 1990s. This evokes intense nostalgic feelings in the generation of Americans who grew up in those times and creates a kind of faux-nostalgia for younger viewers like me, who remember such events from history class. Through Forrest’s layman eyes, the film paints a distinct portrait of history, one that has implications for and effects on moviegoers of all ages.

It is important for us to remember that this historical portrait is not a mirror; the movie distorts and warps its representation of history, like most movies do. Forrest Gump uses its titular protagonist as the means of representing these distortions. Throughout the film, Forrest unintentionally acts as a pivotal part of American history, an example being the scene when he unwittingly inspires Elvis’ dance moves or when he accidentally exposes the Watergate scandal. Throughout the film, he expresses little to no understanding of his political impact, instead simply clinging to basic values and beliefs, exemplified by his famous line: “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.”

That line, while nice, is also dangerous.The film idolizes Forrest, presenting him as a wholly good and benevolent soul. Lines like these argue that his simplicity is what makes him so good, as he is untainted by the vileness inherent in the actions of “smart men.” Jenny, on the other hand, is a happy participant in history and is destroyed by it. She becomes a hippie, gets slapped around by her abusive hippie boyfriend, becomes a drug addict, contemplates suicide and eventually dies before the film is completed. This manipulative dichotomy between the two main characters suggests that involvement in politics and change is corrupting and damaging, suggesting that the ideal way to live one’s life is to use simple ideas and values as a guiding light.

That would be a fine set of principles if everyone was as pure and kind as Forrest, but, as we all know, real life is not like the movies. If there exists someone as impossibly flawless as Forrest, I’d love to meet them.

By creating its eponymous, impossible everyman, Forrest Gump disavows political activism and even participation, elevating its viewers to an unrealistic standard, where one’s personal uninformed moral compass is the sole metric that person uses to determine right from wrong. It denies the fact that change is the only constant, instead asserting that nothing about the world changes, and thus an individual’s political engagement is pointless and self-destructive. In 2019, that is a very dangerous idea. America needs informed political engagement now more than ever.

The film is not without good messages: treat others the way you want to be treated, do the right thing, be patient, etc. But some of its underlying implications are dangerous and paint an ultimately unrealistic portrait of the American past and the future.