A Hollywood movie is like a box of chocolates: it tastes good, but it’s really bad for you. Of course, it isn’t bad to eat a small amount of chocolates; likewise, not all Hollywood movies are bad for you. But after seeing Forrest Gump, the charming aphorism that was central to the film (“My momma says that life is like a box of chocolates”) metamorphosed in my mind in this fashion. I caught myself enjoying the film while realizing that I was enjoying something unhealthy. As time passes since the film’s release, it not only grows in popularity, but the associated merchandising increases. One can buy collections of Gump sayings, tins of “Bubba Gump Shrimp,” Gump t-shirts, and so on. As the film’s appeal grows, so does the need to examine its message. The movie won six Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Actor for Tom Hanks)—so the film is clearly an influential social and cultural item.
Before criticizing the film’s vices, I first praise its virtues. It is very well executed, The by-now-well-known special effects that make Tom Hanks appear in old newsreel footage and play championship ping-pong, and that make Gary Sinise’s legs disappear, are outstanding. Hanks adds another finely crafted performance to his resume. The film’s narrative structure is tight, and strikes the right balance between serious drama and light comedy. Indeed it is truly an excellent film, in the sense that it tells a story well and conveys a message. But the values portrayed, like a box of chocolates, are too sweet and not entirely healthy.
This film is subversive. It doesn’t subvert the Constitution of the United States, but rather it is subversive of the human spirit. This claim will come as a spoilsport voice-in-the-wilderness to the many who are trumpeting the film as a triumph of the human spirit. Forrest Gump is unambiguously anti-intellectual, and subversive in its power to make one enjoy it anyway.
The naive innocent who prospers in a wicked world is an old standard, and a very seductive device. Even Wagner, after announcing the coming of the superman, found refuge in this archetype in Parsifal. Here Hanks portrays a man with an I. Q. of 75 who becomes a national hero and a millionaire through… what? The purity of his spirit and the grace of God, or something like that. The message is that intelligence, indeed ability generally, are unimportant. Providence will watch out for those without gifts, therefore everyone is gifted. Some of Gump’s achievements are due to his being a nice guy. He wins the Medal of Honor for rescuing his company because he is unwilling to abandon his friend. But he becomes a great runner by divine flat. His shrimp boat survives a hurricane. He becomes a champion ping-pong player simply by not taking his eye off the ball. It’s not quite like Being There, to which this film is frequently compared. The character Chance in Being There receives his fortunes through the misinterpretaions of his idiocy by a sick society, hence the satire. Gump is satire-free. But the film makes us ask, what’s the point of having talents if talent is unimportant?
The film not only portrays talent as unimportant, but literally as an impediment to the good life. Consider the intelligent and intellectually curious Jenny. She is an independent thinker who questions authority and social standards, and who is experimental and adventuresome. Jenny is punished with a series of abusive relationships; she finally dies of AIDS. I’ve rarely seen a characterization so hostile to inquiry. It is revealed that the roots of her eagerness to question authority and think independently are having a dysfunctional family. So an evil force drives her to independence of thought, and the results of the consequent life are drugs, abusive boyfriends, and AIDS.
The contrast with Gump is clear enough. His mother loves him. He always does as he’s told, and prospers as a result. In response to the command, “just run,” he is able to score touchdowns. This trait also makes him a natural for military service. To be sure that we do not interpret all this as anti-Christian, Jenny, despite her sins, is forgiven and rewarded in the afterlife in the form of a perfect child conceived with Forrest. When Lieutenant Dan loses his legs, he rails against God, but when he makes his peace with God, he walks again.
Gump’s mother, played well by Sally Field, keeps admonishing him that he’s no different from everyone else. The film insistently advances the idea that there is “nothing wrong with being stupid.” Honestly, could there be a more dangerous message to promulgate? It should go without saying that people should not be cruel to those with less ability, and we may indeed wish to care for those incapable of taking care of themselves. But is there really nothing wrong with being less able, less smart? This is not about self-esteem for the disabled, it is actually about radical leveling, a devaluation of ability. How is Gump no different from anyone else? This claim seems innocent enough, and might follow from the idea that those of less ability are still humans deserving respect and dignity. But of course he is different–he is a great runner, a football star, a war hero, a millionaire. Most of us are none of those things. And he has a 75 I.Q., which most of us don’t have, either. So he is different from most people. By downplaying that, the critique of ability is made more subtle.
There’s no secret to excelling, the film tells us, just do what you’re supposed to do.
In real life, people must earn their achievements. Of course, some steal and some inherit, but in general, people have to achieve through their efforts. At any rate, that would be a better lesson to teach, I submit, than that if you just blunder about, God or fate will take care of everything. No ability is necessary to make a fortune in the shrimp business—just make sure that your shrimp boat is the only one left intact after a hurricane. No ability is necessary to be a football hero–just run until they tell you to stop running.
Of course, all these bits in the film are funny and charming. I laughed and smiled on cue with everyone else. Hanks is always likable, and Gump especially so, being the sweet innocent that he is. But I am disturbed that a film could attain such popularity and appeal by advancing the view that ability is not an important component of business success and that critical thinking is not essential to achieve prosperity. Despite Gump being a successful businessman, the film thereby conveys a tacit anti-commerce message.
The anti-commerce message derives from the more general anti-ability theme. If intelligence and analytic ability are not portrayed in the most popular film of the year as important components of the good life, an intellectually lazy generation will tacitly take this as support for their disengaged condition. The majority of teens cannot locate the Pacific Ocean on a world map, or the Civil War by half-century. The fastest growing trend in criminal defense is diminished responsibility. Books are out, MTV is in. Critical reasoning is on the decline not only as a skill but as a desideratum. And now comes Forrest Gump to reinforce the idea that we are not responsible for our destinies, that intelligence is not important, that independent thought will be punished. That’s dangerous.
Forrest Gump is not a bad film, but it is subversive. The film is subversive because it is so well made and enjoyable. I enjoyed it even as I was aware of the unhealthiness of its message. If anyone tells me that it was a good film, or that he or she enjoyed it, I won’t disagree. But if anyone tells me that it was profound or that it changed his life, I shall weep.