All month long, we’ve asked what you think of when you hear “Tom Hanks.” American everyman or the Antichrist’s emissary? Affable pal or appalling performer? Ready for coronation or ripe for condemnation?
To coincide with Hanks’s latest film premiering this month, Midwest Film Journal co-founder and staff writer Sam Watermeier and contributor Dave Gutierrez have been offering conflicting viewpoints on the iconic (or is it irritating?) actor every week. On Tuesdays, Dave has said Hanks for Nothing, Tom! On Wednesdays, Sam has said Hanks for Everything, Tom!
As promised, they’re now facing each other in what we’re calling the Gump-Off. Here, Sam and Dave streamed director Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump at the same time through a watch-party service and traded comments throughout. Below is their transcript — with occasional scene-setting and moderation from Midwest Film Journal co-founder and staff writer Evan Dossey — as well as their closing thoughts presented to you, the jury, about the defendant, Tom Hanks. Their transcripts have been edited for style and clarity.
Dave: Sam, so you can prepare, I think I’m planning to step on Hanks for his portrayal of a mentally disabled man for laughs, using a physically disabled man for laughs, the whitewashing / oversimplification of historical issues, the cheesiness of the whole thing.
Sam: Sounds good, I’m ready.
The film opens with a feather floating in the wind and pans down to Hanks as Forrest Gump, sitting on a park bench awaiting a bus.
Dave: And here we meet our leading man, who happens to be carrying all the elements of his life’s story in a suitcase. Bang-up start, Zemeckis.
He is so bad at accents, but he does them all the time.
And there it is. “Life is like a box of chocolates.” Not only is it a dumb line, he’s holding the damn box so we’re looking right at the text on the inside of the box lid that tells him exactly what he’s going to get.
Sam: I’ve loved this movie since I was a kid, but it’s making me kind of uncomfortable now.
Dave: That’s the spirit, Sam.
Oh, man. I forgot about this nonsense. Forrest and his leg braces teaching Elvis to dance. This kind of thing is so cringey.
Sam: Come on. It’s charming and uplifting. The historical fantasy of the movie suggests that people from all walks of life are capable of weaving new threads into our cultural tapestry. A boy with a physical disability influencing Elvis is a beautiful celebration of diversity and inclusion.
Forrest starts telling the audience about Jenny (Robin Wright), a young girl from his hometown and the longtime love of his life from childhood onward.
Dave: OK, pause this for a second. Now here’s my first real beef with this movie, and it’s not just that all the kids on the bus have equally bad accents. Jenny’s life is so incredibly sad — she’s abused by her dad, abused by her boyfriends. Pretty much nothing ever breaks Jenny’s way — but the movie neither takes it seriously nor gives it any weight beyond how it affects Forrest. And it makes their relationship creepy.
Sam: I don’t think the relationship is that one-sided. For one thing, Jenny initiates the connection by inviting Forrest to sit with her on the bus. And they have a true back-and-forth. “She helped me learn how to read, and I showed her how to swing,” he says, recalling their childhood. That give and take between them extends into their adulthood, and they introduce each other to more complicated aspects of life. They’re also both lost souls, wandering around and seeing where the wind takes them. But they remain each other’s constant as the culture keeps shifting around them. “I’ll always be your girl,” she assures Forrest.
Dave: OK, maybe she does love him in a way, but isn’t that still kind of depressing? The only person who ever takes care of her is also not capable of loving her on a level that would make her life fulfilled? Either way, Robin Wright deserves a much better part here.
Sam: He may not be a smart man, but he knows what love is. There’s no evidence in the movie to suggest a stable romantic relationship between them isn’t possible. They find warmth in each other’s company, they have sex, etc. But I agree that Jenny is an underdeveloped character.
Dave: Oh, man. Another cringey scene as they superimpose Hanks’ dumb head on a historical moment, Forrest solves racism by picking up the notebook that Vivian Jones drops as she goes into school. A real bit of history, a real woman who stood with courage in the face of screaming racists and against the wishes of a powerful governor, and Zemeckis and Hanks reduce it to “one nice white man saves the day.” The way this movie deals with race is really uncomfortable.
Sam: Or it’s satirizing white saviorism and the idea that we could have a butterfly effect on history through simple actions like Forrest’s. Is that kind of satire appropriate amid hefty real-life circumstances? Maybe not.
Dave: Also, the way he describes his football heroics reminds me of the President. “Some say I was so fast, I was probably the fastest player ever. I don’t know. That’s what people are saying.” This is MAGA: The Movie!
Sam: Trump is a heartless monster, so I’m going to call bullshit on that comparison. Forrest’s delusions of grandeur don’t hurt people the way Trump’s do.
Dave: OK, fine, but it is fundamentally conservative. Also, we just saw Tom Hanks’ pubes. Could have done without that in my evening.
Jenny leaves their small town to go to college. After several years, the two reunite at her college campus — where she shows Forrest her breasts. This causes Forrest to prematurely ejaculate on her roommate’s blanket.
Dave: They play this for laughs, with his terrible premature ejaculation face, but it’s not funny. It’s deeply sad! The only thing she thinks she can offer of any value to him is sex, something he doesn’t really want and definitely doesn’t understand. If the genders in this scene were reversed it’d be super-controversial. Actually, it’s not even just that the character thinks that’s all she has to offer. The group of white dudes making this movie also seem to think that her sexuality is something she ought to offer up, that this is like some kind of gift she’s giving him. It’s gross, sorry.
Sam: There’s no real evidence that he doesn’t understand or want sex. He looks at Jenny in a Playboy magazine and pursues her romantically. And before this sexually charged moment, they’ve been close friends for years. They’re in college here, so taking their relationship to a sexual level makes sense. People with intellectual disabilities can have sex. I’d say the film is bold and progressive for showing that Forrest is a sexual being and that Jenny doesn’t assume he’s not.
Forrest arrives in Vietnam, accompanied by Creedence Clearwater Revival singing “Fortunate Son.”
Sam: This movie has a great soundtrack.
Dave: The soundtrack is legit in some ways, but it’s just as superficial as the movie itself. It’s basically a greatest hits album.
Sam: This movie’s great. You got this, Sam.
Gary Sinise is the fucking man.
Dave: Sinise is also a much better actor than the part he gets in this movie.
Sam: He’s done a lot for soldiers and veterans.
Dave: He has, I’ll even forgive him for that horrible monologue in The Green Mile.
Sam: That little montage featuring all of Lieutenant Dan’s ancestors dying in battle is funny.
Dave: That little montage is the best thing so far, I’ll concede the point.
The soundtrack briefly switches to “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys.
Dave: This song is such a dumb choice
Dave: They just picked it for that one “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” line. They played like 12 seconds of “Sloop John B,” just to do the usual Zemeckis 2×4 to the head. Forrest doesn’t like Vietnam, so play a song that says “I want to go home” for eight seconds and then move on to “All Along the Watchtower” because you can’t make a Vietnam movie without that and “Fortunate Son.”
Do you think Forrest committed any war crimes?
Sam: Nah, he didn’t even kill anyone.
Dave: I’m surprised they didn’t digitally impose Forrest in the My Lai massacre
Sam: Jesus. Well, so far this movie has shied away from the horrors of American history, right? It’s about as hard-hitting as a school field trip. In Entertainment Weekly, critic Owen Gleiberman called it “a baby-boomer version of Disney’s America.” But I think that’s the point. It’s a sly satire of how simplistically most Americans view our country’s background.
Dave: That actually would make some sense … if Zemeckis was capable of thinking about anything beyond skin-deep.
Sam: For a while, it’s almost as if this isn’t real and Forrest is on a Bill & Ted-esque adventure through history. You could argue that most historical reenactors do what Forrest does on the bench, taking listeners on a gentle stroll through time and skipping over the unpleasant stuff. We know what Forrest is whitewashing, so we reflect on those seedy aspects as he skims past them. We taste the medicine while he tries to coat it with sugar. I think that’s part of the point. The more he sweetens, the more we’re re-sensitized to the horrors of history. But he also reminds us of the humanity that shines through the horror.
Forrest runs back into the jungle after a firefight in Vietnam and rescues several squadmates before finding his commanding officer, Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise), whose dream is to die in an American war.
Dave: This is probably the movie’s strongest moment. It’s cheesy AF, but this is probably the most human moment in the whole damn movie. We’re about 60 seconds from ruining it with the ridiculously hokey Bubba death scene.
Sam: Yeah, but it’s really poignant. Lt. Dan’s bitterness about being saved is powerful. This is where reality kicks in for Forrest. He’s not on a theme-park ride through history anymore.
Dave: Not least because Sinise can actually act.
And here it goes right back off the rails with Bubba’s long, drawn-out death scene.
Sam: I don’t know. I think this is pretty tragic.
Dave: It plays like community theater, Sam. It’s not all on Hanks. Mykelti Williamson is especially awful here. “Why’d this happen?” Come the fuck on.
Sam: Not sure why Bubba has to be such a cartoon.
Dave: Because this movie doesn’t know how to deal with black people.
I’m doubling down here, Sam. This is, at its core, an extremely conservative movie. It’s a goddamn MAGA dream. Even the dumbest American is better than anyone else at everything, including ping-pong.
Sam: It’s not a MAGA dream. Too far. I’m going with satire.
Dave: I don’t buy it. I think this is a fundamentally conservative movie. Drugs and promiscuity are bad, and Jenny must be punished for her lifestyle. Special programs for the disabled are bad, bootstraps all the way. Being wounded but not dying is a sissy’s way out. Hippies are dumb and misguided. Black people are cartoonish sidekicks. Lt. Dan just needs to make peace with God. I could go on.
Sam: I wouldn’t go as far as saying this is a MAGA movie, though because, unlike the MAGA movement, it’s aware of its own simplicity and antiquated perspective. But it also pushes against it with its portrait of a disabled man as a folk hero, its depiction of a positive interabled relationship and its general thesis that love trumps hate. The MAGA movement wouldn’t embrace any of that.
After returning home from Vietnam with a bullet in his butt, Forrest inadvertently gives a speech to a crowd of Vietnam protesters in front of the Lincoln Memorial. In a moment intended for comic effect, his speech is inaudible.
Dave: We don’t know what he said about Vietnam.
The screenwriter gives us literally nothing about the war. Don’t worry, conservatives! No judgment here! Definitely not going to say anything bad about it, and also we’re going to make Abbie Hoffman look like a total clown.
Sam: I think the fact that Forrest’s speech is censored says something.
Dave: Yeah, it says that Zemeckis didn’t want to take any kind of stand.
Sam: Well, the moment in which Jenny walks across the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool is pretty sweet.
Dave: Yeah, that’s cute and harmless.
After the speech, Jenny and Forrest visit a meeting of the Black Panther Party, along with Jenny’s abusive boyfriend.
Sam: This dude she’s with is a dick.
Dave: Of course he is, but in the meantime they’re showing us the Black Panthers as incoherent and disorganized, and somehow not as valid in their objections to the war as Forrest’s unheard speech. And Jenny’s boyfriend is an abusive jerk, but it’s important to establish him as a ultra-leftist abusive jerk.
Sam: Well, their approach is incoherent to a mentally challenged man, yes.
Dave: We’re not mentally challenged as an audience, though. What we get to see is them shouting down everyone and looking menacing.
Sam: Again, we know what they’re really saying as Forrest tunes them out. It’s a commentary on how we’re guilty of tuning out troubling parts of history.
Dave: He declares his love for Jenny, and she says she loves him, too, BUT NOT IN ANY MEANINGFUL WAY THAT MAKES HIM HAPPY. Jenny’s life is tragic, but her callous treatment of Forrest is downright manipulative.
Forrest appears on The Dick Cavett Show with John Lennon, where this happens:
Dave: OH MY GOD.
I just had a fucking stroke.
EASY IF YOU TRY, DICK.
That was as bad as Mike Myers’ cameo in Bohemian Rhapsody.
Sam: And now Lt. Dan is conveniently outside the TV studio.
Dave: Even though shows like that are recorded and aired later.
And his wheelchair slides down the ramp because the only thing funnier than mental disability is a physical disability.
Here we go again with the music. Jim Morrison sings “as she’s walking out the door” as Jenny sneaks out of the hotel room. It’s like Zemeckis thinks a soundtrack is supposed to be a literal description of the action on the screen. “Hey guys, we need a song that has ‘walking out the door’ in the lyrics. See what you can find.’ ”
Time has passed, and we see Jenny is now into the 1970s party scene, cocaine and all.
Sam: Jenny sure is wild!
Dave: Jenny sure does deserve punishment! Conservatives hate when you’re wild.
Sam: Forrest is conservative as fuck in comparison to her, yes. But not in a harmful way.
“Free Bird.” Fuck.
Dave: AND THIS BIRD YOU CANNOT CHANGE.
SHE WANTED TO BE A BIRD, SAM.
THIS BIRD YOU CANNOT CHANGE.
We should make a Robert Zemeckis drinking game. Pick a movie scene at random on YouTube, and if you can’t think of a song describing the action literally in the lyrics, you do a shot.
Jenny returns to Alabama to stay with Forrest.
Sam: That’s nice, her coming back and the hug.
Dave: She doesn’t love him. She likes that he’s kind to her no matter how badly she treats him. But it’s all part of how sad her life is.
Sam: I think she loves him.
Dave: She has to settle for someone with whom she can’t have a genuine two-way relationship..
Sam: He’s someone she can always go back to, a friend, a soulmate. You’re jumping to a lot of groundless conclusions about what Forrest is capable of thinking or feeling based on his disability. He repeatedly confesses and demonstrates his love for her yet you keep saying they’re incapable of having a loving, two-way relationship.
Dave: SHE’S BACK IN ALABAMA, SO GUESS WHAT SONG IS ON?
It’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Dave: This soundtrack is so painful.
Sam: It’s really weird watching this movie now. I almost want it to be left in my childhood.
Dave: This whole setup where she’s living with him is off. He’s happy, but she’s not. It’s exactly the life he wants, but it’s 100% not what she wants. And we’re meant to think she’s the bad one for not giving it to him.
That’s what’s important here.
Never mind that she has real psychological trauma to deal with.
And that she doesn’t love him this way.
Oh, god. “Why don’t you love me, Jenny?”
“I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.”
Hot take: No. No, he doesn’t. That’s the fundamental problem. He doesn’t know what love is, at least not in the way she needs.
Sam: That’s a powerful moment, you fuck.
They’re gonna have sex now.
Dave: And again, she won’t give him love, but she’ll “give” him sex.
Sam: Valid point. But that’s all she knows.
Dave: That’s disturbing.
Sam: It is.
Dave: It’s what she thinks is important about herself, but it shouldn’t be. Zemeckis is as Zemeckis does. Jenny is an absolutely tragic character, but what we’re meant to see as the tragedy is that Forrest is left alone.
Sam: There’s tragedy in her running away and not feeling comfortable even in a warm, loving home.
Dave: Through Zemeckis’s lens, we see only her shortcomings as they relate to Forrest. The movie never deals with who she is and why.
Sam: She was sexually abused by her father, so that fucked up her dynamic with men. Pretty lazy character development, though.
After Jenny leaves him once again, Forrest starts running back and forth across the country to Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty.”
Dave: SOUNDTRACK ON THE NOSE. Running, see? The song says running, and he’s running. It works!
The worst cringe of the movie is coming up. Maybe the worst cringe of any movie ever.
ANOTHER SONG THAT SAYS “RUNNING.”
It’s “It Keeps You Runnin’ ” by the Doobie Brothers.
Sam: When he runs in dookie and says, “Shit happens”?
Dave: Not just that. The smiley-face shirt / “Have a nice day” and “Shit happens.” We’re supposed to take this movie seriously?
ON THE ROAD AGAIN. He’s running! On a road. This soundtrack is beyond bad, Sam. RUNNING AGAINST THE WIND.
Yes, these are Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s “Against the Wind.”
Sam: The idea that a white man contributed to all these historical moments is … sketchy.
Dave: I’m going to hammer you on the conservative wet dream of this thing. Sorry.
Sam: This is harder to defend than I thought. Fuck. But I think its heart is in the right place. At his core, Forrest is socially sensitive. He clearly believes in racial equality and inclusion of people with disabilities.
Forrest reveals that he’s been waiting for the bus and telling his story on his way to visit Jenny, and that she’s just a few blocks away.
Sam: This upcoming scene is devastating.
Dave: “I want to make a blanket apology for everything I ever did wrong and then be done with it.” — Jenny
Sam: “Is he smart or is he … like me?” That introduction to his son is heartbreaking. Despite all his accomplishments, Forrest still doubts himself because of his disability.
Dave: She’s going to die and leave her son in the care of a mentally disabled millionaire. Convenient for her. She got AIDS! There’s her comeuppance! That’s what you get for doing drugs and being a hippie and sleeping around, Jenny.
Sam: Well, we’re in the early ’80s right here, at the height of the American AIDS epidemic. The fact that she gets it is a tragedy, not a punishment.
Forrest and Jenny get married. Lt. Dan shows up for the wedding with new legs and an Asian wife. It is not explained how Dan and Forrest, business partners in a multimillion- dollar shrimping operation, seem to have lost contact with one another.
Dave: This wedding is outright emotional abuse. She’s marrying him because she believes there are literally no more options for her. She’s not cynical enough to be cold about it, it’s more just incredibly sad for her, but the movie treats it like she’s doing something nice.
All of a sudden the guy who can barely understand anything is spouting off poetry about the meaning of life while she’s on her deathbed.
The movie comes to a close as Forrest sees his son, Forrest Jr., off to the child’s first day of school. A feather floats up from the ground to bid us adieu.
No, no, no, no, no.
Sam: The feather.
Dave: With the fucking feather.
What a crock of shit. You can hear fucking Zemeckis in storyboarding. “See guys, he talks about life as being like a feather! So there’s a literal feather! And Jenny had that bird thing. Birds have feathers! Forrest is like a feather, floating around history.” Christ.
At least it’s over.
Look, I get how someone could see this thing as just a sweet, innocent story about a man whose big heart makes up for his slow brain. I don’t buy it, though.
I think the movie is terrible to Jenny’s character, putting her through trauma after trauma with no real development. I think it sets up a weird relationship dynamic between her and Forrest, where he’s both demanding of her in an uncomfortable (and oversimplified) privileged-dude way and where she tragically has to settle for this less-than-equal relationship with someone who can’t really understand who she is and what she wants.
I think it’s downright embarrassing with its view of history, and unrelentingly conservative. The message is that a white dude is at the center of every historical moment, from inventing bumper-sticker slogans to validating the experience of students ending segregation. That people with liberal or progressive ideas — like a special school for a disabled child or that war is bad — are foolish. That a real, genuine hero doesn’t even see color, just like all the Karens on Facebook claim while they’re posting All Lives Matter memes. That even a simpleton can pull himself up by the bootstraps in the good old USA if he just makes good choices. That women — only women — who enjoy drugs and sex and fun are both only that way because they’re fundamentally damaged and also that they deserve to suffer consequences. If Mitch McConnell could describe his ideal America, this would be it.
And here’s the real rub for you, Sam — I think it all rests on Hanks. His performance here is so self-aware, so unbelievable, that it invites the audience to look at Forrest and see themselves. We know Forrest is slow because his doctor told us so in the opening scenes and he talks like someone who has never heard language before. But deep down we also know that he’s not actually dumb, he’s really smarter than everyone else because he keeps proving them wrong. He gets rich, he gets famous, he gets the girl he always wanted. Hanks isn’t giving us a character who really struggles to keep up intellectually but overcomes that weakness, he’s winking at the camera and telling us it’s OK to ignore people who know more than you because you know in your heart that you’re right.
Thanks to Hanks’ inability to go all in on the character, Forrest is the prototype for every flat-earther, anti-vaxxer and non-masker you’ve ever met. You don’t have to know something to know something. That’s the moral of this story. “I may not be a smart man, but I know that vaccines cause autism, Jen-nay.” It’s all right there on the screen.
OK, I’m going to rest my case on the basis that these are largely groundless conclusions. I’ll break them down.
The movie’s not saying that schools for the disabled are bad; it’s fighting for inclusion and accessibility in public schools. “My boy will have the same opportunities as everyone else,” Forrest’s mom says. Not sure what’s wrong with that. In regard to the film suggesting that being anti-war is foolish, when does it do that exactly? When Bubba is bleeding out in Forrest’s arms?
Like Forrest, Jenny is a lost soul wandering in the breeze. Like the feather, she simply floats off in different directions. Life’s a crapshoot, and she’s dealt a shitty hand. I’ll admit that she’s an underdeveloped character, but I think the strength of her character lies in how she doesn’t treat Forrest differently due to his disability. She shows tolerance, compassion, unconditional love — what the movie is all about.
As far as the notion that Forrest is a conservative know-it-all, I think that’s an excessively cynical take on the character. Do you really think Forrest would argue with people on Facebook that Earth is flat? Would he really refuse to wear a mask? He hates to see people hurt, does what he’s told and doesn’t so much as raise his voice throughout the entire movie. He talks to people on the bench not because he’s a blowhard but because he’s friendly, and he wants to share, to inspire. When he boasts, he does so with a bashful smile.
Forrest’s success isn’t due to the fact that he “knows everything.” It’s the result of perseverance, and it’s a testament to the film’s message that people of all levels of ability can make a difference.
Look, we’re going through a difficult time right now. I get where the cynicism comes from, but come on. This is clearly a big, bleeding heart of a movie. Forrest’s heart is clearly in the right place. So is Hanks’s heart. He plays good people, the kind of people we should strive to be.
To quote Forrest: “That’s all I have to say about that.”