Forrest Gump Is Dumb

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The beginning and end of Forrest Gump, as millions know, feature a feather. A lovely little feather, seemingly unbound by gravity. It floats over houses, churches and trees. It may dip or settle, only to rise again, triumphant, borne by a breeze.

It's an apt metaphor not just for the movie's plot -- Man's Fortunes Rise for No Apparent Reason -- but also for its box-office fortunes: in six weeks, Gump has floated to grosses of nearly $200 million.

Just shows you how far a lightweight can go in this country.

For the as yet un-Gumped, here is a jaundiced synopsis: Forrest, a nice young man with an IQ of 75 and a freak talent as a runner, survives bullying in his small-minded hometown; survives Vietnam and wins a Medal of Honor; survives a freak storm on the Gulf Coast that wipes out all other shrimpers, making him fabulously rich; and survives (as in outlives) his sweetheart Jenny, a sad, bad girl who nonetheless leaves behind Forrest Gump Jr. Gump also manages to inject himself, Zelig-like, into a fair amount of historical film footage.

My queasy feeling began during the film's key Vietnam scene. There is an ambush: Forrest saves some of his platoon; others die; his lieutenant loses his legs. A certain horror attends the explosions and deaths but so does a strong feeling that things here are happening by the book. As indeed they are. The grunts have not died in vain: they have died as a plot device, to facilitate Gump's upward float -- and the film's apparent message: act decent, stay positive (brains optional), and everything will be fine.

Well, fine for Gump. In fact, although Forrest is a good man, he is not a good man to know. The lieutenant (whose injury remains a focus of fascination, if only because Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas' special-effects house, did such a great job "erasing" his legs in subsequent scenes) actually gets off easy. Gump walks between the bombs: everyone else, whether famous (John Lennon, George Wallace) or intimate (Jenny), gets hit. Assassination, cancer, AIDS: surely Forrest would not have wanted it scripted that way. But he's not the screenwriter. As it is, after each death Tom Hanks stares petulantly into the distance: "And that's all I'm gonna say about that."

Now Forrest is hardly the first idiot hero to ride through a fiction, bodies dropping all around him. The Czechs celebrate the apparently obtuse Good Soldier Schweik, whereas in terms of plot Voltaire's Candide might have been a Gump pilot. Yet Schweik is not so much a defense of dumb optimism as an argument against militarism and a celebration of sly peasant smarts. And Candide may be literature's most ferocious send-up of cheeriness in the face of the world's cruelties. By its end, its battered hero has abandoned his opening premise that everything happens for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

Gump, however, refuses to suggest its idiot might be mistaken -- he must come out a winner. Thus by the closing credits, he is triumphantly spouting the same faux wisdom as at the beginning: "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." And America is cheering.

Much as it cheered Ronald Reagan, who, more than Schweik or Candide, is the real proto-Gump. Reagan too was relentlessly upbeat. Reagan too was extraordinarily lucky. And his luck, like Gump's, was often built on the backs of people who suffered off-screen. Forrest had bankrupt shrimpers, martyred Vietnam buddies, and his wife, whose death was remarkably demure, considering her ailment. Reagan scored points off America's poor; somehow managed to cloak himself in heroism while apologizing for a needless screw-up that killed 241 U.S. servicemen in Beirut; and avoided tarnishing his reputation for optimism by spending too much time on AIDS.

In fact, we struggle constantly with a nasty addiction to Gumpism. And as the conundrums facing the voter become ever more complicated -- Whitewater, Bosnia, battling health plans -- and the average American apparently feels less and less compelled to understand them, the very last thing the country needs is a movie telling it that the answer is Engage Winning Smile and Detach Brain.

In real life, the "box of chocolates" line is seldom enough. And then Gumpism risks devolving quickly into a mindless, heartless conservatism where, if the next guy over is having a rough time of it, it's not because America has failed to grapple with the real and complex problems that face it -- it's probably because he isn't sufficiently upbeat. Or not decent enough. Lacks family values. Reads insufficiently of the Book of Virtues.

Moviegoers recently exiting the showing of Gump near my Manhattan building probably walked smack into the local legless beggar. Poverty, homelessness and physical disability are not what one likes to grapple with on a nice day out / with the kids. But one thing you can bet on: his legs cannot be restored by Industrial Light & Magic.