Sunday, July 06, 2014

Through the Eyes of Forrest Gump

"I don't know if Momma was right or if it's Lieutenant Dan. I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental–like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."

Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks)

I didn't go to see Robert Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump" when it was showing at the theaters. In fact, I don't think its debut, 20 years ago today, made much of a ripple in my personal radar.

That isn't surprising, I guess. I only vaguely remembered the book upon which it was based.

I still remember the tagline of the movie: "The world will never be the same once you've seen it through the eyes of Forrest Gump." When I finally got around to seeing it, I had to admit that was true.

But, although I really enjoyed the movie, when I think of "Forrest Gump," I am reminded of grim periods in my life.

I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, which included teaching a writing lab, and one day in the fall of 1994, I got into a discussion with my writing lab students about "Forrest Gump," which had turned into a box–office blockbuster.

I remarked that I thought I was the only person left who had not seen it, and one of my students, Jason, said that he had not seen it, either. Jason wasn't the best writer I ever had in one of my classes, but he was a hard worker, and that means something to me. I have known several people who succeeded at what they did — not because they were the best at it but because they gave the most effort. I thought Jason was one of those people.

I don't know if Jason ever saw "Forrest Gump." Jason lived in one of the frathouses on the OU campus, and, near the end of that semester, he and his frathouse brothers participated in an end–of–the–semester ritual that involved shaking a flagpole outside the house. They had been doing this for years, perhaps decades, without incident, but, on this particular occasion, the flagpole snapped and fell on Jason, crushing his skull.

He was rushed to the hospital, where he was kept alive for a few hours, but he died the next day.

About five months later, my mother and father were having dinner with friends on a Friday night when what is known as a supercell storm came through the Dallas–Fort Worth area, dumping a lot of water in an area that was already saturated from unusually heavy spring rains. There was no place for the water to go, creating a flash flood situation.

On their way home from dinner, my parents' car stalled in the rapidly rising water, and they got out to look for higher ground. Mom was swept away in the flood waters and drowned. Dad was pinned between the guardrail and the car, which probably saved his life but left him with a pinched nerve in his left arm. Dad is left–handed, and his injury left him without the use of his dominant arm — until his physical therapist was able to restore much of it.

That summer, I stayed with Dad and helped him do the things he really wasn't capable of doing for himself — like cooking his meals, doing his laundry, even helping him dress. We watched a lot of movies on video tape that summer, one of which was "Forrest Gump." Turned out Dad had not seen it, either, which made me wonder if Mom ever did. They almost always went to movies together.

I really enjoyed the movie. I'm a history buff — as regular readers of my blogs no doubt know — so I enjoyed the way that Forrest wound up being in the vicinity of — if not directly involved in — most of the significant events in American history in the latter 20th century.

I particularly enjoyed the scene in which he was a guest at the Watergate Hotel and called security to complain about the flashlights shining in a suite of offices across from his room. The lights were keeping him awake. Of course, the flashlights belonged to the burglars in the offices of the Democratic National Committee, and the very next thing that was shown was the familiar tape of Richard Nixon announcing his resignation two years later.

(As a history buff, I appreciated one of the little touches in that scene. When Forrest called security, the person on the other end identified himself as Frank Wills. That was the real name of the security guard who discovered the Watergate break–in.)

According to Forrest Gump's account, he had been a pretty influential fellow, sometimes deliberately, usually unintentionally. He met presidents, he was on hand for major historic events, like George Wallace's famed stand in the schoolhouse door (while Gump was a student at the University of Alabama), and he delivered what came to be known as Gumpisms, pearls of wisdom expressed as only Gump could.

Every time I watch it, I ask myself, Could anyone other than Tom Hanks have played Forrest nearly as well? It's hard to imagine, but the role might have been played by John Travolta or Bill Murray. Would either have been better? I don't know, but I do know it would have been much different.

Gump, of course, was regarded as slow. Early in the movie, his mother (Sally Field) was told that her son was "different" and would need special schooling, but she didn't accept that. "You have to do the best with what God gave you," she told him.

Of course, you can't mention "Forrest Gump" without mentioning "My momma always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get." The American Film Institute rated it the #40 movie quote of all time.

Forrest always sought to please his mother so he didn't focus on the negative. Most of the time, he focused on the positive, even when he was in pain. Even when it made no sense.

"Mama always said dying was a part of life," he said. "I sure wish it wasn't."

Initially, I guess that was my favorite Gumpism, which isn't surprising, given what I had been through in the weeks and months before I finally saw "Forrest Gump."

But, after repeated viewings of the movie, I decided that my favorite Gumpism came when Forrest and Jenny (Robin Wright) were walking together and came upon the house where she had been abused as a child. She started throwing rock after rock at the house, some bouncing off the wall, others shattering the glass in the windows, before she collapsed in a heap on the ground.

"Sometimes," Gump the narrator said, "there aren't enough rocks."

"Forrest Gump" introduced me to two actors I didn't recall seeing before.

One was Gary Sinise (Lieutenant Dan), who had been in movies for nearly 10 years when "Forest Gump" made its debut. I had seen some of his movies, but I had no memory of seeing him in them. He made quite an impression on me in "Forrest Gump," though, and I followed his career closely in the years that followed.

Lieutenant Dan was one of those guys who came from a long line of soldiers who gave their lives in service to the nation. Forrest saved his life during a battle, and Dan resented it, believing that Forrest deprived him of the glorious combat death his ancestors had.

Back stateside, Dan, who lost both of his legs, encountered Gump and demanded to know what people were always asking him. "Have you found Jesus yet?" he asked.

"I didn't know I was supposed to be looking for him," Gump replied.

As Forrest later observed, Lieutenant Dan "made his peace with God" — and he made his peace with Forrest, too. By the end of the movie, they were close friends.

The other actor was Haley Joel Osment.

"Forrest Gump" was only his second movie, but he did a good job as Forrest Jr. The next few years saw him appearing mostly on TV shows, but, in 1999, he was in one of the best supernatural flicks ever made — "The Sixth Sense."

Few careers have begun so well.

"Forrest Gump" won six of 13 Oscars for which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director (Zemeckis) and Best Actor (Hanks).