Any film can have its hand in decades of culture when it robs and hoodwinks the talent of others and plants its lead in the moving changes of modern America. Forrest Gump does just that. The happenstance encounters of the eponymous character, played by Tom Hanks, is likeable enough to sit through but not remarkable enough to convince audiences of a man who holds shares in Apple, owns a shrimping company, served in Vietnam, inspired hundreds of popular men and women yet also did it with a kind heart and an almost unknowing impact on those around him. Robert Zemeckis is a guide through this tour of well-meaning moments, but little more than that.
Tour guide is not the same as director, and leading performer Hanks is left to his own devices in a story that feels like the events came first and the romantic story second. Well-meaning these moments of romance between Gump and Jenny Curran (Robin Wright) may be, they are tertiary. Most of the plot revolves around how Gump is just too dumb to care and too kind to fight back. Hanks makes that as approachable a piece as he can, with emotive moments littered throughout more to keep the audience onside than for the development of the story. Zemeckis presides over a feature that focuses on events rather than character. The Vietnam War is used as a brief backdrop to provide emotive clarity to the leading man, and from there develops its romantic necessities more to string along the cultural events at the heart of it than to provide love and beauty for a troubled leading man.
John Lennon, presidents of the United States, the Olympic Games, assassinations, bumper stickers, shrimping, the rise and fall of technology and the Vietnam War all play second fiddle to a man who experienced it all. Zemeckis navigates these moments as if they are bit parts to a man destined to be bigger than all of it, even though Forrest Gump is very keen to display that the man at the heart of it all is just an ordinary guy. Less than that, at some points. Hanks’ role is a good one, but he feels mismanaged at times. Wright has a decent performance, but the back and forth between her and Hanks is a frustrating one. It does not feel like escaped love but an inability to move on from regrets of childhood and a failure to make new, lasting relationships. Gump is a closed circuit that rarely reciprocates new experiences. His inability to control or understand them is not touching, it is just a way of keeping things light.
Big plans are possible for small minds. Forrest Gump will provide hope to a generation of idiots, but its happenstance occurrences lack the moral or emotive calibre needed to pair up Hanks with Lennon, Abbie Hoffman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the space of two hours. All of it circulates not on the man himself, but the experiences he was fortunate enough to unwittingly experience. Hanks plays the dumbfounded hero rather well, a stark and appreciative bit of entertainment. The conversation and discussion can never go deeper than that, though, since Hanks’ work here provides the shell of ambition, a way to live life to its fullest form without having to deal with the desolation and sadness of it all, even if his closest friends drop like flies, he is too encapsulated in ping pong to show it too frequently.