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Terri Murray reviews a classic satire.
In 1994, when Robert Zemekis’ cinematic sensation Forrest Gump topped the box office and waltzed away with six Oscar nominations, the critics were firmly in two camps: either the film was unworthy escapism, or it was an ultraconservative conspiracy to communicate an outdated message of traditional values such as patriotism, capitalism and the family. The liberal elite delivered the resounding verdict that there was no serious moral to the story, or else there was a highly suspicious one. And in typically literalist fashion, right-wingers in America lauded the film as a thinly-veiled assault on the counterculture, arriving at an astonishingly simplistic interpretation of the film: Jenny, Forrest’s sweetheart, took drugs, hung out with anti-Vietnam types, and was rewarded with AIDS. By contrast, Forrest wore his country’s uniform, invested wisely, went to church, and made a mint. Yet the film never suggests that making the cover of Fortune magazine (as Forrest does) is where our human aspirations ought to lie. Forrest Gump deserves to be rediscovered.
As the film opens we see a white feather fluttering on the wind as it gradually floats down, eventually landing next to Forrest Gump’s dirty-tennis-shoe-clad foot. Gump is sitting on a park bench in Savannah, Georgia, a box of chocolates perched on his lap. These two symbols, the feather and the chocolates, illustrate the film’s true key theme: Fate – the uncontrollable events that make each of us what we are. But the film’s emphasis is not on fate itself, but on our responses to what fate deals us. While we can’t decide what happens to us, we each have important choices to make in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Thus in many ways the film’s message is existentialist.
In Existentialism and Humanism (1946) Jean-Paul Sartre distinguishes between human nature and the human condition (p.45ff). Sartre rejected the idea that we possess a generic nature, in the sense of an essence that can be found in each and every human being. Nevertheless, he argued that we share a universality of condition. We find ourselves thrown into the world, and we share the necessities of having to labour and die here. While these necessities are fixed and universal, Sartre stresses that there is nothing about this condition that determines the kind of life we must lead, either as individuals or as groups. Thus our condition limits us in various ways, but it does not compel us to behave in particular ways. Our common predicament means that we must give moral shape to our lives through our free choices. This is an enormous responsibility, because, since humanity has no essence, each of us is literally responsible for creating our humanity. If we choose a holocaust, says Sartre, then this is what we have made of ‘human nature’. Likewise, if we choose resistance or peace, then this is what ‘humanity’ has become for us. Forrest Gump is about these sorts of choices.
The real target of Forrest Gump’s critique is the (typically Protestant) American notion that material rewards are the inevitable outcome of a virtuous, industrious life. The film shows that by contrast, people don’t get what they deserve, and life isn’t fair; it’s more like a box of chocolates: “you never know what you’re gonna get.” All of the main characters in the story – Forrest, Mrs Gump, Jenny, Lt. Dan, Bubba – are dealt their share of suffering and grief. Forrest is born mentally disabled, and with “a back as crooked as a politician”; Mrs Gump’s husband has left her; Jenny’s only parent, her father, is abusive; Lt. Dan gets his legs blown off in the war; Bubba is killed in Vietnam while others survive. None of us can control fate, but in an important sense we make our own destiny by the ways in which we respond to it. On her deathbed, Mrs Gump summarises this philosophy: “I happen to believe you make your own destiny. You’ve got to do the best with what God gave you.”
To illustrate this philosophy, in an early scene, Mrs Gump tries to instil in her son a belief that he is “the same as everybody else.” Despite the fact that the young Forrest is mentally slow and has to wear braces on his legs, he is entitled to the same opportunities and has the same human dignity as everyone else. “If God had wanted everyone to be the same,” Mrs Gump explains, “then He would have made it so everyone had braces on their legs.” When she attempts to enrol Forrest in school, the Principal insists that Forrest will have to go to a special school because his intelligence is below normal. But Mrs Gump refuses to deny Forrest the same opportunities as everybody else, and to that end she’s willing to prostitute herself. While the Principal is collecting his bribe from Mrs Gump, young Forrest hears loud grunts emanating from her bedroom. When the guardian of institutional normality emerges, wiping the post-coital sweat from his brow, it is he who is made to look stupid, when the young Forrest mimics his grunts. This scene highlights the Principal’s hypocrisy: he is the head official in an institution that exists for the purpose of improving people’s minds, yet his own mind is too small to conquer his libido. Meanwhile, Mrs Gump’s behaviour may be socially unacceptable, but her intention is worthy and she doesn’t feel ashamed. This scene alone is a damning indictment of 1950s American social institutions.
These scenes establish Mrs Gump’s moral voice in the story. She is the main influence on Forrest’s life, and her message is that what makes him the same as everybody else is not that his natural endowments are identical to everyone else’s (none of us are equal in that sense), but that, like everyone else, he has the potential to make his own destiny with what fate has given him. His basic human condition (what Sartre would’ve called his facticity) is what makes Forrest just like anyone else.
Lt. Dan learns the film’s central message painfully when his own destiny veers off the expected path, disrupting his family’s tradition of war martyrdom. Lt. Dan curses God for instead being made to live with a physical disability. He is reluctant to accept the fact that life is unfair. Yet although the facts are arbitrary, our ability to make choices and to do something with our condition is fair, as the ability to choose is equally distributed to all. In the realm of freedom we all have an equal opportunity to give our lives value. Dan is only liberated from his crippling emotional bitterness when he finally accepts that his freedom, his ability to make the most with what destiny dictates, is where the real value of his life lies.
Forrest delivers the film’s central motif at Jenny’s grave: “I don’t know if Mama was right, or if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental like on a breeze… but I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time.” The seemingly arbitrary feather on the wind is a symbol of our lives. We too are tossed about by destiny, with little control over where we’ve come from or where we’re going. But Forrest Gump shows us we still have important choices to make in spite of this, and that these choices give our lives its real value.
So many box office hits are about protagonists who exert power and control, mostly over others. By comparison, Forrest Gump is an unlikely hero. He is depicted as ‘innocent but harmless’, ie, too dull to be cunning or dangerous. Because he does not have the ability to be calculating, he genuinely cares for other people, because he innocently (naively from the cynical perspective of American politics) thinks that other people really matter. Forrest’s natural altruism, and his inability to measure the value of his life against the ‘normal’ criteria of competitive achievement, along with Lt. Dan’s triumph over his own resentment, offers viewers a real source of inspiration, rather than another escapist fantasy of omnipotence. While most Hollywood blockbusters celebrate a kind of heroic hyperperfection inconceivable in real life, Gump reveals the bravery it takes to accept our mere humanity and turn our trials to fortune, both for others and ourselves. While some critics lamented that this fortune had to be taken so literally (‘Bubba Gump Shrimp’ turns Forrest into a millionaire), I still believe the film is better understood as a scathing critique of American capitalist values and the profit-driven worldview that underpins them. In the real world, a morally-innocent millionaire is virtually an oxymoron. This is primarily because, as we instinctively know, morality is distinct from self-interest, the cardinal rule of capitalism. As soon as we begin to ponder the question ‘Why should I be good?’ we understand that a genuinely good person would not need to ask what’s in it for him. If one seeks a reward for an act of goodness, then the motive isn’t good but selfish. The principal at Greenbow Central City School is ‘good’ to Forrest only when he has something to gain; and the same can be said for the University of Alabama. Forrest’s exploitation at the hands of the football team, which after five years allows him to get a college degree, is a comment on how even education in America is little more than a cynical business transaction.
Forrest Gump is a witty satire which holds the American political establishment up to moral scrutiny, especially the military-industrial complex. Time and again, Forrest’s naïve innocence is contrasted with the cunning cleverness of those who exploit him, also including the US military. When Gump is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in Vietnam, President Johnson kicked off the award ceremony by announcing the need for further escalation of the war in Vietnam. When the President asks to see Forrest’s wound, this provides an opportunity for a not-too-subtle affront to the motives behind the ceremony, as Forrest moons him (the wound was on his buttocks). At the Washington monument, we see a uniformed man unplug the sound system in order to deny freedom of speech to Vietnam vet Forrest and other anti-war protestors. The silencing of Forrest is linked to the historical silencing of Abbie Hoffman and other young American anti-war protestors: Forrest is led to the speaker’s podium by Hoffman, the co-founder of the Youth International Party, who along with six others was tried for conspiracy for his outspoken role in protesting at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The film also reminds viewers several times that all of America’s genuine moral icons have been killed by Americans, from John F. Kennedy to John Lennon.
Cunning cleverness is what Forrest so desperately lacks, yet the question posed by this film is whether he is really any worse off for it. Forrest says to Jenny, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” The lurking question is whether the smart men who lead his country know what love is at all. Gump is continually being given accolades by politicos at the White House, the insinuation being that they prefer dumb, compliant Americans, so that they can carry on screwing them over. Yet Forrest’s innocent responses to their public relations stunts render them as foolish as him, because the viewer sees through the hypocrisy of their empty rituals and cynical PR ploys. The viewer’s sympathies stay with Forrest throughout, and the film leaves on-lookers lamenting the loss of innocent idealism that Forrest represents. As such, Forrest Gump is a swan song to the more honourable values that once made America great.
The film ends the way it began, with the white feather floating away, leaving viewers to wonder what fate will bring to the next generation of (smarter) Gumps, and how they too will respond to circumstances they cannot foresee.
© T.M. Murray 2011
Terri Murray is an American film producer and lecturer living in London. She is author of Feminist Film Studies: A Guide for Teachers (Auteur, 2007).