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When 'Forrest Gump' Stumbled Into the '90s Culture Wars

July 1, 2014

This weekend is the 20th anniversary of the release of Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis’s comedy-drama about the simple-minded title character (Tom Hanks) who recounts his tale of bumbling again and again into the biggest events of the late 20th century. The movie, which opened on July 6, 1994, became an immediate phenomenon: It took in close to $700 million worldwide; won six Oscars, including best picture and best actor for Hanks; had a twelve-time platinum-selling soundtrack; and even inspired a chain of seafood-slinging restaurants named Bubba Gump Shrimp.

As big as the movie became, though, not many people remember how politically divisive it was at the time. For all of Forrest’s brushes with power, the movie overlooks the feminist movement. And the onscreen treatment of the counterculture in general isn’t exactly glowing. While Forrest plays college football, joins the Army, and starts a business, his childhood sweetheart, Jenny (Robin Wright), becomes a folk-singing stripper, then an anti-war hippie, and then a hard-partying drug addict before dying of what’s presumed to be AIDS. Some viewers took her tragic end to be a form of punishment for her earlier choices.

The film happened to hit at a tumultuous time in American politics. When it was released, President Bill Clinton and the Democrats were suffering in the polls; this culminated in an electoral rout in the midterm elections that November when the Republicans took control of both the House and the Senate for the first time since the 1950s. Forrest Gump was the film everyone was talking about, and it was soon adopted as a mascot of this Republican Revolution, name checked by both the new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and future presidential candidate Bob Dole as a film that upheld “traditional family values.”

The film’s creators were adamant that it was an apolitical piece of work. Hanks told film critic Joe Leydon, “I don’t think we’re saying anything more than that was a time of great confusion, and everybody was yelling at one another.” But the right embraced it nonetheless: In a speech to a Republican women’s group, Gingrich said that “in every scene of the movie in which the counterculture occurs, they’re either dirty, nasty, abusive, vindictive, beating a woman or doing something grotesque. It’s important to remember that in that period, Bill Clinton was on the side of the counterculture.” Meanwhile, over at the left-leaning The Nation, Stuart Klawans attacked the film, writing, “War, racism, child abuse, poverty, political murder, death by AIDS — we drift through them all, says the movie, at no cost beyond a passing tear…. We drift, because like Forrest, America is simple and good.”

In the two decades that have passed, American political life has become even more combative. With some distance, though, it feels as though the politics of Forrest Gump are a little more complicated than most suggested at the time. The treatment of Jenny and the counterculture still feels somewhat reactionary and sour, but there’s also a gentle humanism to the film: Forrest’s innocence means that he doesn’t judge anyone, and he’s particularly progressive in his attitudes about race. (One of the film’s neat visual jokes is Forrest’s gift of Bubba Gump Shrimp profits to Bubba’s mother — which allows her to quit her job as a cook and hire a white servant of her own.) And there’s even a quietly satirical edge to the film’s approach to the Establishment: The Army mostly uses Forrest as a pawn and tries to sabotage his big speech at the antiwar protest.

The film isn’t exactly a celebration of the American dream, either. Forrest, ever the holy fool, stumbles into his success, making his fortune only because all the other shipping boats are wrecked in a storm, and increasing it only because his friend invests in the then-fledgling Apple, which he thinks is a fruit company. The film’s worldview doesn’t reward exceptionalism — it rewards sheer dumb luck. That’s something that even commentators at the time noticed. The right-leaning think tank the Foundation for Economic Education called it “a tacit anti-commerce message.” If you’re annoying both sides of the political divide, you might be doing something right.

Two decades on, it feels as though Hanks and Zemeckis were right to suggest that the film didn’t endorse one particular political philosophy over another. One of the movie’s most memorable scenes is when Forrest, in his military uniform, and Jenny, in her bohemian flower garb, embrace in the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool by the Washington Monument. The late, great, Roger Ebert wrote at the time that the two were “like a dream of reconciliation for our society.” And with political discourse more bitter and divided than ever 20 years later, that dream remains a long story that’s worth listening to. 

Update: As many of you noted, Forrest is present during the integration of the University of Alabama. This piece has been updated accordingly. 

Photo credit: Everett