Magical or Moot? The Messy Legacy of Forrest Gump

Robert Zemeckis' iconic drama won Best Picture and became a global phenomenon, but its cultural standing has lowered with time. Are we being too harsh? Adam Solomons investigates...

In Backlash, our writers explore the films that were originally beloved by critics and audiences alike, only to face heavy scrutiny or a notable decrease in popularity as time went on. But how do these films fare now – and was the backlash deserved or unwarranted?

Few Best Picture winners with a four-star rating from Roger Ebert are likely to appear in a column titled “Backlash,” but the legacy of Forrest Gump is like that of few other films. Amid that wave of initial love from America’s best-known critics – Ebert declared it to be “a magical movie,” whilst Todd McCarthy stated it was “very well worked out on all levels” – Gump also gained a coveted “A+” audience rating via CinemaScore.

And it’s easy to forget just how much money Forrest Gump made. Upon its release in June 1994, Robert Zemeckis’ CG-heavy journey through the American ideal grossed a whopping $677 million worldwide (well over $1 billion today), becoming the fourth-highest grossing film of all-time and selling just under 80 million tickets in the US alone. That’s close to half the adult population.

What is well-remembered about Forrest Gump is the social imprint it left. Gump quickly exceeded the cultural influence of Zemeckis’ Back to the Future and comfortably outperformed his 1989 critical hit Who Framed Roger Rabbit? during awards season. Hanks’s Oscar-winning performance – and his second Best Actor win in a row, after 1993’s Philadelphia – became a touchstone for the sorts of performances that would later become a cliché. For other heartwarming male leads who refuse to be defined by their impairments, see also: Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, and Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. None have aged too well.

Yet beyond the film’s initial dismissal by some critics as a schmaltz-fest – the FT’s Nigel Andrews claimed “If sentimentality were a crime, Forrest Gump would be put away for life” – Gump has taken on a broader, more substantive status as a genuinely controversial depiction of a person with learning difficulties, defined by their sincerity and “simpleness.” Gump is uncritical to the extent that a small child is uncritical. The character’s breezily unthinking approach to the darker recesses of morality and politics, which contrasted the murkier novel on which it was based, doesn’t exactly stand up as a nuanced portrait of intellectual disability.

Of course, it isn’t meant to be. Forrest Gump is more truthfully a story about the optimism and perseverance of America. Its perspective is only so doe eyed as to allow us to see the nation beyond our own cynical, overly analytical viewpoint, much in the way that Green Book reaches to equate racial ignorance with an innocence of Life’s Bigger Troubles. Perpetuating a crude representation of the mentally challenged for that purpose, Gump’s harsher critics attest, is too high a price to pay. Twenty-six years after the film’s original release, a period in which comparatively fewer frontline actors have opted to play impaired characters in the same fashion as Hanks, Hoffman or Pacino, it's an evaluation that still holds up. It’s why Forrest Gump wouldn’t – and probably shouldn’t – be made today.

Then there’s the argument, albeit a silly one, that Forrest Gump is “right-wing.” Republicans in 1994 wantonly exploited the film’s hopeful message about persistence and determination to support their own belief in American exceptionalism. Like Gump himself, they said, America is special for its singular understanding of what really matters: an adherence to traditional family values. Forrest’s girlfriend Jenny (Robin Wright), in contrast, is punished by her countercultural sensibility and rebellious lifestyle choices. Her premature death by AIDS, conservative fans of the film still allege, is divine justice for her earlier sins. Some have even concluded that Forrest Gump is an early draft of a MAGA-style attitude, its “grinning idiot” hero reminiscent of a certain someone.

These claims have less strength, and the conservative appropriation becomes nonsensical with any real scrutiny. Bubba, an autistic African American, is drafted and ultimately killed in Vietnam, a pretty clear reference to that war’s notorious racial injustice. Bubba shouldn’t be fighting, but – for numerous reasons – he's out on the frontline anyway; the film’s portrayal of this tragic failure by a military establishment Gump wants little part of is surely a political statement, and not a conservative one.

Similarly, although Jenny’s embrace of the shadowy corners of the cultural revolution is shown to be deeply imperfect, her death is no divine victory for family values, and certainly no cause for celebration. A wonderfully empathetic performance from Wright means that Jenny is a well-fleshed-out, deeply felt character. Her death is the film’s single greatest tragedy. Those who watch Forrest Gump and see a woman righteously punished for her permissive attitude aren’t really watching Forrest Gump at all.

The sadder truth might well be that Forrest Gump hasn’t changed at all – we have. The nature of today's nit-picky critical analysis, featuring a lead who notably and consistently fails to assert their opinions about things that are happening in the world, is an aspect that dates Forrest Gump just as much as any other. That makes it sound like a bit of a boomer movie – and contrasted against its Best Picture rival Pulp Fiction, perhaps it is – but it certainly isn’t a conservative one. Just like the one belonging to its titular character, Forrest Gump’s heart is in the right place.

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