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Question for Discussion: Why was Forrest Gump
so popular in 1994?  What kind of a nerve does 
Gump touch in the American collective pysche 
in the 1990s?

Reading:Roger Ebert's Review of Forrest Gump;
Rita Kempley Review of Forrest Gump ;
Cynicism Didn't Start With Watergate;
CNN: Vietnam--The War that won't go Away

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Critical Reviews of Forrest Gump (1994)

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But, despite the fictional Alabama simpleton's ability to be whatever his beholder wants him to be, Gump is none of these things. In truth -- and this is what makes him such a scary phenomenon -- he is hardly anything at all.

The harder you look at Gump, the less there is to see. He's the David Souter of movie heroes. Aside from his mother's folksy aphorisms, Gump believes in nothing and stands for nothing. Though he plays football and Ping-Pong, he's not interested in sports; though he meets three presidents, he holds no political views. He is not driven by money or sex or the need to do good. He is the closest thing America has yet produced to a man without qualities.

What's strange is that no one seems to be bothered by this. Traditionally, our notion of heroism involves deliberate action. Our heroes choose to do brave things or endure hardships. But when Gump behaves heroically -- as he does in Vietnam where he rescues half his unit and wins the Congressional Medal of Honor -- he does so almost by accident. Because he doesn't quite know what's going on.

Gump moves through his entire life without choosing anything. His existence is almost completely dictated by happenstance and dumb luck. Gump is the antithesis of Job -- success falls at his feet, like the feather that drifts to the ground at the opening and close of the film. When his shrimping business is about to fail, God steps in and bails him out with a hurricane. Grump just happens to become an All-American, a goodwill ambassador and a "gazillionaire" -- all without effort or pain.
         Hal Hinson, "Forrest Gump, Our National Folk Zero"

A Feather on the Breath of God

Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I ...A Feather on the Breath of God.
..................by Hildegard of Bingen

The wind sweeps across continents and oceans, through times and cultures, depositing seeds wherever the soil is ready. Trusting the unseen wind, the breath of God, we become a seed, or as the twelfth-century abbess and mystic Hildegard of Bingen put it, we become a feather on the breath of God.
..............from Barefoot on Holy Ground

The males in Jenny's life are an even more
dubious lot. They're dysfunctional poster boys.
The movie's catalogue of Mr. Wrongs includes
a father who abused her, sleazy strip joint
customers who heckle her and an antiwar
lefty who slugs her.

Compared to them, Forrest looks pretty, um,

Does anybody remember when the great
American hero was a Jimmy Stewart character
from a small town? Today, the last American
hero is a Tom Hanks character with a small IQ.

Is there a message here? If he's good, is it
because he doesn't have the brains to be
bad or bitter?

  Ellen Goodman, "Good Man Hard to Find--At the

And yet this is not a heartwarming story about a
mentally retarded man. That cubbyhole is much
too small and limiting for Forrest Gump.
movie is more of a meditation on our times,
as seen through the eyes of a man who lacks
cynicism and takes things for exactly what they
are. Watch him carefully and you will understand
why some people are criticized for being "too
clever by half." Forrest is clever by just exactly

        Roger Ebert, "Review of Forrest Gump"

One of the most enduring legacies of the war
and those tumultuous times has been an 
abiding cynicism about government. "We no
longer trust government," says Reckner.
  "We  lost our faith collectively as a
  people in our government. But maybe 
that was a weakness. Maybe we're
  stronger now. We're certainly different."

"There's less of a sense of the possibilities," 
says Kuznick. "We grew up with Reagan,
  Bush and Clinton. There's not a lot of real
  idealism and faith  in government and the
  community as a way of solving things now.
  There's much more individualism. It's a 
selfish era. Greed is sanctioned in a way 
it wasn't in the '60s and '70s."

   CNN, Vietnam: The War that won't go Away

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1. Do you agree with Roger Ebert's characterization of Forrest Gump:

"Its hero, played by Tom Hanks, is a thoroughly decent man with an IQ of 75, who manages between the 1950s and the 1980s to become involved in every major event in American history. And he survives them all with only honesty and niceness as his shields."

2. Do you agree with Ebert that Forrest Gump (1994) is a meditation on our times:

"The movie is more of a meditation on our times, as seen through the eyes of a man who lacks cynicism and takes things for exactly what they are. Watch him carefully and you will understand why some people are criticized for being "too clever by half." Forrest is clever by just exactly enough."

3. Do you agree with Ebert's explanation for why Forrest Gump is a magical movie:

"...[B]etween them Forrest and Jenny have covered all of the landmarks of our recent cultural history, and the accommodation they arrive at in the end is like a dream of reconciliation for our society. What a magical movie."
4. Do you think that Ellen Goodmen is being too cynical in her characterization of Forrest Gump:

"Is there a message here? If he's good, is it because he doesn't have the brains to be bad or bitter?"

5. What do you think the Director of Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis, means by this characterization of Forrest Gump:

"Because Forrest Gump is a pure and simple individual without any opinions or politics, he can travel through a tapestry of American images spanning three decades, reflecting back the mayhem and the madness that's going on around him.''

6.  Do you agree with film reviewer Hal Hinson that Forrest Gump is simply an idiot, who "doesn't direct his life in the way that most characters do and has no real motives or drives or psychology" and  "aside from his mother's folksy aphorisms, Gump believes in nothing and stands for nothing"?

7. What do you think is the role of Forrest Gump's mother's sayings, which some critics call gumpisms, throughout the movie? Are we supposed to take such sayings as "Stupid is as stupid does" and "Life is a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get" seriously?

8. Why does Forrest Gump throughout the movie protect and defend Jenny from all the men who threaten her?

9. What does Forrest Gump's mother mean when she says: "You make our own destiny. You have to do the best with what God gave you"?

10. Why does Jenny seem to jump from one failed experience to the next, wandering across America trying to find herself and the meaning of her life?

11. Do you think that Forrest Gump is sincere when he tells Jenny, "I am not a smart man, but I know what love is"? What evidence do we have that Gump really knows what love is?

12. Why does Forrest Gump spend over three years running back and forth across the nation?  What does Forrest Gump mean when he says: "You've got to put the past behind you before you can move on. That's what my running was about"?

13. Is Forrest Gump proud of his son?  Does he think he can be a good father even though he is "not smart"?

14. Do you think both Jenny and Lieutenant Dan finally make peace with their lives?  Why does Jenny go back to Forrest and marry him?

15. Why does Forrest Gump begin and end with the same feather floating in the wind.  How does this feather help open and close the movie?

16.  How does this statement by Forrest Gump at Jenny's grave help us understand the larger meaning of the film:

"Jenny, I don't know if Momma was right or if, if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time. I miss you, Jenny. If there's anything you need, I won't be far away."

17. What does this interaction between Forrest and Jenny tell us about their characters and their lives?

Jenny: Do you ever dream, Forrest, about who you're gonna be?

Forrest: Who I'm gonna be?

Jenny: Yeah.

Forrest: Aren't I going to be me?

18. What allows Forrest Gump to survive all the turmoil and agony of life between the 1950s and the 1990s? Is Gump really just an idiot, a man without character and understanding, who just floats through life like a feather "accidentally floating on a breeze"?

19. Does Jenny die of AIDS?  Why does the movie
simply call it "a virus"?


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© 2002 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
Created 7 August 2002:  Last Modified: 16 April, 2007
E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
URL:    http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/film/idiot.htm