Forrest Gump is a movie heart-breaker of oddball wit and startling grace. There’s talk of another Oscar for Tom Hanks, who is unforgettable as the sweet-natured, shabbily treated simpleton of the title. The Academy is a sucker for honoring afflicted heroes. In Hollywood, it’s always raining rain men. Credit Hanks for not overplaying his hand. He brings a touching gravity to the role of an idiot savant from the South who finds strength in God, country, his childhood pal, Jenny (Robin Wright), and his good mama (Sally Field). When Forrest falls a few IQ points shy of minimal school requirements, Mama knows who to sleep with to bend the rules. Her son has a gift. As Forrest makes his pilgrim’s progress from the ’50s to the ’80s, he becomes a college football star, a Vietnam war hero, a shrimp tycoon and even a father.
Taking a cue from Zelig, director Robert Zemeckis places Forrest in a vivid historical context — he talks with JFK, LBJ and Nixon, among other luminaries. The effects dazzle, though never at the expense of the story. Winston Groom, who wrote the 1986 novel, saw Forrest as a modern Candide, an optimist in the face of strong opposing evidence. But Groom is no Voltaire, and neither is screenwriter Eric Roth (Mr. Jones, Memories of Me), who blunts his satire with choking sentiment. It’s Hanks who brings humor and unforced humanity to the literary conceit of Forrest, though the slim actor scarcely resembles the 6-foot-6-inch, 240-pound bruiser of the book.
In a college dorm with Jenny, who lets him touch her breast, the virginal Forrest ejaculates instantly, losing her interest and his self-respect. In the Army, Forrest saves his captain (Gary Sinise), whose legs are later amputated, and the captain resents him. Forrest is everything we admire in the American character — honest, brave, loyal — and the film’s fierce irony is that nobody can stay around him for long.
Zemeckis doesn’t fall into the trap of using Forrest as an ad for arrested development. He knows the limits of a holy fool who can’t understand the hypocrisy of postwar America that this picaresque epic so powerfully reveals. The peace-love pretensions of the ’60s are skewered as neatly as the greed decades that follow. But there is something of Forrest that Zemeckis would like to see rub off on us: his capacity for hope. It’s an ambitious goal in this age of rampant cynicism. Godspeed.