I hated Forrest Gump when I first saw it. I hated the cheerful but melancholy man child who bounced his way through a generation of history like a pinball on peyote. The audience laughed. I glared in silence at the idiot on the screen. The audience sighed and chortled and felt good about themselves for two hours, high on the fumes of their own memories. I gazed vacantly on nostalgia that wasn’t my own like a dinner guest drafted into watching vacation videos.
Even after 15 years there is no consistent gestalt as to either the film’s quality or significance. A significant percentage of Baby Boomers are in love with the film, seeing it as ode to their generation. A goodly proportion of Gen X’ers loathe it for the same reason. It has that curious quality of reflecting back exactly what you want to see in the events of the time. Liberals revel in the vision of counter culture, civil rights, and the meaninglessness of Vietnam. Conservatives repeatedly rank the film as one of the most conservative films ever made, whenever the National Review or its ilk feel like doing a top ten list. And the film’s message makes sense from that point of view: hard work gets you rich, hippie drug users get AIDs.
It was only as I watched Forrest Gump again that I realized the genius of the film, the way that on some level it functions as a hit job on the entire boomer generation. Forrest, sitting there rambling incessantly and unselfconsciously about his entire life history to an eclectic group of people who alternately are entranced, mystified or just plain irritated by the crazy guy in a white suit. The audience doesn’t matter, all that matters is his need to plow on with the endless narrative that conveniently describes how he is in fact the center of the entire universe. He instigated every major historical event of the previous 20 years, with an aw shucks “just happy to be here, ma’am” shtick that is even responsible for producing bumper stickers. He’s like Dr. Evil’s father claiming that he inventing the question mark. “Hey baby, did I ever tell you about the time I invented the phrase ‘shit happens’?” If it’s possible to simplify and distill an entire generation down into one personification, it’s Forrest Gump.
But that’s just the surface reading of the character, the one that Boomers are happy with even if they think you’re exaggerating his faults. After all, they are the center of the universe, and being snarky about it just shows that we don’t understand just how incredibly much we the following generations owe to their noble sacrifices.
My initial antipathy towards the film largely centered on the way that it trivialized history. The way it inserted dumb ol’ Forrest Gump into the middle of things that people fought and died for. Civil Rights? Well, golly, why would I hate someone because of their skin color? Watergate? Well, golly, someone’s breaking into that them there hotel. Vietnam? Well, golly … oh the microphone cut off. Look, if this film was supposed to be an ode to the Boomers we would have heard what Forrest had to say. If it was an ode to them, it’s so easy to write a single middling sentence that makes both sides happy. “War is bad, but I did my best, Jennaaay.” There, both Boomer contingents will hear the half of the sentence they want to hear, just like they did with the rest of the movie. The film kills Forrest’s microphone there explicitly because it isn’t the ode that Boomers think it is, because the only thing Forrest really could have said in character was “screw all of you on both sides, I’m going to go buy a boat, Jennaaay.”
The movie’s genius is in the way that it really does trivialize history. It trivializes all of the damned things that we’ve had to listen to the Boomers brag about for the last 30 years. Wow, you fought for civil rights? Wow, you realized a politician was corrupt? Wow, you figured out that war sucks? Guess what, any idiot could have figured out those things. By dropping the mantle of the Boomers’ accomplishments onto the broad shoulders beneath that mentally deficient head, Forrest Gump is in effect throwing down against the entire Boomer generation’s self-satisfied ego. So you did all those things, what do you want? A fucking medal? Forrest freaking Gump could have managed those things, so why are you so proud?
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying that history doesn’t matter or that the events of the film’s period weren’t important, just that they don’t matter more than their context. Every generation thinks it’s the center of the universe, but in 50 or a 100 years no one will remember your special nostalgia and whatever you think mattered will probably be footnotes at best in the dusty tomes of history.
The final scenes are the film’s warning shot, little Generation X sitting there in a matching suit, sad and smart. He’s lost his mother to a self destructive life and inherited a father who’s not quite all there but can talk for hours about being the center of the universe. Life is a box of chocolates, the little white feather floating on the wind. Forrest is sad for the exact reason the Boomers as a generation aren’t. He knows he can’t control what’s going to happen to his boy, that it’s all just damned dumb luck what’s going to come rolling your way. You were never in charge of history any more than you were in charge of what was in the center of each chocolate in the box. The winds knock your bloody feather around and around and the best you can do is keep a smile on your face through it all. But there’s a hope buried in that nihilism: the same winds that sputter out and leave you in the gutter can also surge and carry you to the heavens. Just don’t think that a lucky wind makes you an eagle.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com.