`Gump' Takes Optimism Too Far

An innocent wanders through turbulent times, blithely making lemons into lemonade

`FORREST GUMP'' is a hard movie to dislike. In some respects, though, it's even harder to like.

Its main assets are a richly sentimental story, an eye-pleasing visual style, and an all-stops-out performance by Tom Hanks that combines the outward mannerisms of an ugly duckling with the inner sweetness of a natural-born innocent.

But the movie supports its optimistic agenda by evading or overlooking many hard realities of the historical period it supposedly wants to explore and understand. The result is a winning but ultimately dishonest portrait.

The film begins in the 1950s. We first meet Forrest as a boy in Alabama, where the local school won't accept him because his IQ is below normal. His concerned mother solves this problem by sleeping with the principal, enabling Forrest to enter the real world despite his peculiarities.

From here on, Forrest's life slips into a pattern whereby difficult challenges always turn into rosy opportunities for his special qualities to shine triumphantly through. Running from schoolyard bullies, for instance, he discovers that his legs - once strapped into braces meant to straighten his back - are the best in town, allowing him to run farther and faster than anyone he knows. Later, a hospital stay helps him discover a similar talent for Ping-Pong, of all things.

These abilities bring him a college scholarship, help him survive as a Vietnam soldier, and come in handy when he's recruited for the diplomatic Ping-Pong team that renews Chinese-American relations in the '70s.

Later episodes find him a successful seafood entrepreneur, a cross-country runner with a hero-worshiping fan club, and ultimately the father of a son with all his virtues and none of his failings.

What makes ``Forrest Gump'' more than just a sugary coming-of-age tale is the way its hero comes into direct contact with many of the social forces and political leaders of his time. Using the trickiest sort of Hollywood technology, the movie shows him looking on as Alabama Gov. George Wallace grudgingly allows black students into the state university; shaking hands with President Kennedy after an athletic victory; and bantering with President Johnson about his Vietnam adventures.

And since one person can't experience everything, the movie gives him a girlfriend named Jenny who confronts more controversial phenomena - free love, radical politics, drug abuse - that almost magically steer away from Forrest himself.

``Forrest Gump'' has an emotional power that can't be denied, especially when Hanks is going full steam as the lovable schlemiel with an inexhaustible reserve of goodness and common sense.

Movie buffs may also enjoy its allusions to earlier films - a long parody of ``Midnight Cowboy,'' among others - and its clever exploitation of strategies borrowed from all kinds of prior productions. Its antecedents range from the 1980 comedy ``Being There'' to the Bill Clinton campaign video ``A Place Called Hope,'' which also depicted a bright-eyed country boy having an all-American encounter with the president himself.

The problems with ``Forrest Gump'' arise from its depiction of American society and recent American history. This plays a major role in the movie, yet rings dreadfully hollow most of the time.

For one major example, most youngsters with subnormal IQ scores don't slip cutely through the bureaucratic cracks and wind up with scholarships, college degrees, and great business opportunities. Of course, it would be fine for a fairy-tale movie to show all this happening, despite its improbability in real life. But the history-based plot and documentary-style interludes in ``Forrest Gump'' are meant to convey the feeling that this isn't a fairy tale at all, just a good-natured portrayal of how great life would be if we'd stop fretting about improving the world and put our money on old-fashioned gumption.

Still more questionable is the movie's habit of raising tough social problems that it has no intention of dealing with forthrightly. The film even treats such tragedies as war, civil strife, and political assassination as little more than colorful backdrops for the hero's charmed life.

This evasiveness reaches its high point when Forrest is coaxed into addressing a huge demonstration against the Vietnam War. At last, it appears, the film is going to take a stand on something, one way or another. But a saboteur knocks out the amplifiers just as Forrest begins to talk, so neither the people in the movie nor those watching the movie can hear a word he says. If the immortal Charlie Chaplin had tried a stunt like this in ``The Great Dictator,'' where the hero delivers a forceful speech against fascism, he wouldn't be remembered for his social commitment as well as his artistic brilliance. Too bad the makers of ``Forrest Gump'' aren't in his league, or even playing the same sport.

Other examples crop up throughout the film, as when a character becomes ill with a mysterious ``virus'' that's apparently meant to be AIDS, but gets identified only through vague euphemisms because to speak its name wouldn't suit the movie's tasteful tone.

At a time when many observers are rightfully concerned about screen depictions of violence, it's also hard to applaud a Vietnam episode that uses the horrors of combat mainly to showcase Forrest's personal heroics.

WHY do the filmmakers go out of their way to address things like war and racism and death and AIDS when they lack the courage to face up honestly to them? Such dodging and weaving give escapism a bad name.

This said, director Robert Zemeckis deserves congratulations for drawing a tremendous performance from Hanks, who emerges as the year's first sure-fire contender for the next Oscar race.

Sally Field is warmly engaging as Forrest's mother, and Gary Sinise has effective moments as his best friend, whose battle-scarred body brings a touch of horrific realism to the film. Robin Wright is solid and unpretentious as the love of Forrest's life.

Don Burgess did the attractive camera work, and Alan Silvestri composed the gushy score. Eric Roth wrote the screenplay, which is based on a novel by Winston Groom.

* ``Forrest Gump'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains violence, vulgar language, and some sexual activity.

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