by Dean Wallraff

Who is Forrest Gump?


Spurred by all the Academy Award nominations, I finally went to see Forrest Gump last night and was appalled. This is an American hero? My father, who taught psychology at a university 40 years ago, used to drill me on the degrees of stupidity: morons are smarter than imbeciles are smarter than idiots. Forrest, with his I.Q. of 75, fits somewhere in the middle of this scale, yet breezes through life, a college football star, a war hero and a successful businessman, the quintessential American success story.
     What is there to admire in Forrest? He has decent values and common sense. He values above all his relationships with his friends and loved ones. Is he a "wise fool"? He utters the occasional gem such as "Life is like a box of chocolates - you never know what you're going to get," but this comes verbatim from his mother. He's no small-town Buddha thinking deep thoughts expressible only as riddles. Is he on a journey of discovery? After all, Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain started out as a mediocre man of slightly below-average intelligence. No, Forrest knows no more about the world or himself at the end of the movie than when he was a child.
     If the film were made in Europe, I'd say that it was a wicked and excellent parody of American life and values. After all, we have our real-life Forrest Gumps, such as Ronald Reagan. But the film is not a parody. The idea that common sense and decency are all it takes to succeed and do great things in life obviously appeals to many Americans. I hadn't realized that the strain of anti-intellectualism runs so deep.
     Antipathy toward intelligence is evident in this country's politics as well. The average Joe is tired of being lectured by the pointy-headed ones. They haven't solved his problems. They make him feel inadequate, since he can't even understand most of the problems, let alone solve them. It comforts him to think of intellectualizing as empty academic exercise because this makes the world a simple, understandable place. Forrest Gump can be a spiritual Rocky, the underdog with whom every man can identify, who succeeds through better application of ordinary virtues.
     Forrest Gump, like our current politics, is about nostalgia. Both hearken back to good ol' plain American family values, decency and common sense. The idea is that, if we can return to the values of the fifties and the sixties, America will return to its former strength and confidence, and the problems of the eighties and nineties will vanish. From another perspective, we're trying to live in a fantasy world, pretending our problems don't exist, electing officials who play their part in this fantasy and tell us the things we want to hear instead of solving the problems.
     In many ways, Forrest Gump is an accurate embodiment of America. He sails through life with charmed luck, oblivious, without a clue to why he's successful. The shocking thing is that this evidently appeals to so many of us.

Copyright © 2000 - 2008 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.