By Max Riley
“What’s your favorite movie?”
Ask that to a lot of people, and they’ll probably tell you very quickly that it’s “Avengers: Infinity War” or “Harry Potter” or some other fantastic, epic, action-packed adventure story that takes you away to a whole new world. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love those movies. Every single one of them has me doubting and on the edge of my seat. They’re really cool, really suspenseful, and have really cool plots and symbolism. I’m not bashing them or saying they’re bad. I actually love those kinds of movies. I’d probably say that they’re my favorite.
I, though, don’t want to talk about favorite. I want to talk about the movie that I think is the best. Not my favorite, not the most popular. The best.
It’s not easy, and it probably depends on what genre you prefer, since there are lots of great examples in all of them that are hard to compare, but again, I want the overall best movie. I want the one that’s the easiest to love, the easiest to relate to, the most well written and the most well made. The absolute best.
Forrest Gump is probably my pick. It’s not a big cinematic event, it’s not out-of-this-world or magical. It’s just a tale of a single man on his journey through life, set in a normal world with normal people, and yet it doesn’t fail to be an absolute masterpiece.
Thinking about it, its sense of purpose and superiority is probably because of the movie’s lack of big drama. Action movies are always really cool, and a lot of them can be really insightful, maybe with allegories and extended metaphors to the real world, or in science fiction, warnings about the future. Maybe symbolism creates a theme. There are tons of real-world connections that can make those movies applicable. It’s just a lot… harder to connect.
Take Forrest Gump again. It chronicles the life of a boy from Greenbow, Alabama, stumbling through the challenges given to him at birth. That’s a relatable story. Even if you don’t know someone in a scenario like Forrest, you can still appreciate the real world and the situations he’s been put in. You laugh at him finding out about the world, cry when it disappoints, and just… feel empathy for him. You understand where he is, because you’ve been there too.
Forrest starts off living with his mom, alone, living off of renting rooms in the house and nothing else. That, right away, makes you sympathise with Forrest. On top of that, he has trouble walking and an IQ of 75, so the schools won’t let him in at first until his mom finally convinces them after a lot of arguing. On his first bus ride to school, he meets the love of his life, Jenny, something that you definitely feel good about, since you’re finally seeing fortune come his way, although we soon find out that Jenny has a dark background too. She has an abusive father, and therefore needs Forrest as an excuse to escape home. This is the moment we really start to see Jenny’s character come out, especially in the scene where her father chases the two of them through the cornfield.
Then comes the famous “Run Forrest Run” scene, where Forrest finally steps out of his leg braces. This is important, because it not only solves the important problem presenting itself in the scene, but it also symbolizes Forrest growing up and out of his disadvantages and learning to be independent. After that, Jenny and Forrest grow up together pretty well and happily, with Jenny’s dad arrested, freeing her to live with her grandmother. This doesn’t entirely free her, which I’ll explain later, but it does feel good in the moment that Jenny finally has a good home to live in.
With Jenny and Forrest now adults, Forrest gets into college to play football. This is where we really start seeing things kicking off for Forrest, because after he graduates college, he joins the army, where he meets Bubba, who tells Forrest of his plans to start a shrimping company, which Forrest does even after Bubba dies, which originally isn’t successful but ends up being a million-dollar business and household name.
Despite all of that adventure, he still couldn’t fill the gap in his heart that was Jenny. Then, just like that, she was there.
Jenny and Forrest quickly reunite in what Forrest calls “the best times of his life”. They’re happy together. They live together. They seem to have finally reunited…
Then the movie reminds us that Jenny is still being influenced by the world. She has to leave. In a masterful move by the director, all audio is cut from the part where Forrest finds out. He just feels empty. No sad music, no deep sighs. Just… emptiness.
Most people would give up at this point, but not Forrest. (This is one of the best things about Forrest’s character, but again, I’ll get to that later.) He just ran. No reason. He ran for a long time. Then… he “got pretty tired” and went home.
It’s simple as that.
Thus begins the final chapter of this movie. Forrest receives a letter from Jenny saying that he should come to her house, and that’s what Forrest is doing right now, so he goes, expecting a happy reunion, but gets two shocking revelations. (Major spoiler alert, by the way.)
He and Jenny had a son, and Jenny is dying.
That is one of the most masterful and brave moves of the movie. Even though both of the main people Forrest loves, Jenny and his own mother, are now dead, the movie still manages an immense sense of closure. Forrest has finally accepted his purpose and come to live it out, and so has Jenny. Even though this movie has the saddest ending it possibly could, it’s also the most satisfying.
Moving on from the ending, though, let’s get back to the movie.
The interesting thing about Forrest Gump is the way it handles Forrest’s low IQ. It’s not something you’d immediately think of for the best movie of all time. He’s not exactly the perfect character.
I’d like to argue that you don’t always want the perfect character.
Had Forrest been smarter, he would have given up on Bubba’s dream of a shrimping business. It’s a pretty risky investment to go invest a small fortune on a boat just because of a conversation you had with a friend. A smart character wouldn’t have done that. Even if they wanted to get rich, they’d just… go off and invest in real estate or something. Shrimp wouldn’t be their main concern, and they’d get rich a lot faster and a lot more realistically, but then we wouldn’t have the fun and exciting moments of the shrimping business.
Had Forrest been smarter, he would have stayed behind in the Vietnam War. He wouldn’t have gone and tried to save Bubba. If he didn’t try to save Bubba, he wouldn’t have saved all of the other soldiers and he wouldn’t have received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Had Forrest been smarter, the movie would have been boring.
The movie could have taken Forrest’s IQ as a liability. Instead, it used it as an asset, and that is only the tip of the iceberg when looking at all the things this movie does right.
It’s established early on that Forrest is not normal. You can see that right away by just the way he looks at the feather, questioning and wondering, looking up to reality instead of down. The items in his suitcase are also a perfect example of this. They’re not things you would usually put at the top or travel with. This especially stands out later in the movie when you consider that in this moment he’s preparing to start a whole new chapter of his life, moving on from his period of running to his new life with Jenny. You can, though, see that he’s not lacking emotion in any way. One of the necessities he put in his suitcase is the book Curious George, the one we see his mom reading to him early in the story after the principal visits his house. This would probably then be an object of sentimental value, especially after his mom died, so it’s easy to see why he’s carrying it around with him.
Forrest, as I said, is not a simple character. His mind thinks simply, yes, and his thoughts and words are very simple, yes, but Forrest as a whole is not simple at all. He just has so much emotional complexity that I’ve already explained is shown throughout the movie, even before a single word is spoken.
We begin to see Forrest’s feelings and motivations develop on the bus ride. You probably at least think you know what I’m talking about right now, but what you’re probably thinking is not actually what I’m talking about. Before Forrest even notices Jenny, we get to see him introduced into the real world.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Forrest has never been in the real world or that he’s never experienced emotion before. Neither of those are the case at all. What I want to say is that this scene introduces Forrest into the first memorable, normal-life situation we see him in in this movie, while also increasing his emotional range hugely. It accomplishes both of these beautifully and at once by splashing the cold reality of an unsheltered, uncontrolled situation on Forrest suddenly, something he isn’t used to, while also performing a complete emotional reversal when he (yes, I’m finally getting to it) meets Jenny for the first time.
In this scene, we see both the most sudden shock of the harsh real world in the “taken” part of this scene and the most positive sudden change we’ve seen Forrest experience so far when Jenny tells Forrest he can sit down. While this totally pales in comparison to the ups and downs we see later in the movie, it’s a very notable moment as it kicks off Forrest’s character arc and solidifies his role as a feeling character, a role we see become very important later such as in the Vietnam War and in his philanthropy towards Bubba’s mom, the church, and the hospital.
Speaking of which….
Forrest is a really selfless character, which is probably one of the key things that makes relating to him so easy and so deep. He’s extremely lovable, so you feel for him in his sad moments, because he is such a good person that he deserves everything to turn out in his favor. It is that that makes this movie so emotionally compelling. Forrest is a character you want to root for. You know that you want him to succeed and you know where he is going.
Forrest isn’t the only good character in this movie, though. His love interest, Jenny, is just as amazing both symbolically, metaphorically, and directly. Her and Forrest’s personalities are similar, but you can see that Jenny, for most of the movie, is kind of a half-foil to Forrest, ironically. We can see that in her early life, she is fundamentally good at heart, just like Forrest. She’s the best person around, since she’s the only one willing to give him a seat. We know that she wants to be good, yet we see later in the movie that she’s very… well, in her own words, “messed up.” She’s been molded by her father, whose abuse she more fully understood and probably dwelled on more as she matured, hence the difference between young Jenny and older Jenny where we see her shift in outlook. She realizes how dark her life has become and realizes she has no escape from it. That is one of the big differences between Jenny and Forrest that we see contrasted here: both are characters who are good at heart but grew up with a traumatic past. Forrest grew up as an outcast from society in a family with no father, while Jenny is abused by her father. What we see differently between these two characters is that Jenny dwells on it, because her mind lets her. Forrest, with his simple mind, can’t dwell on things of the past, so he doesn’t let them bother him. That is another amazing use of Forrest’s main character, but that’s beside the point. Jenny lets the world mold her into her place. She wants to be free, but she can’t be; she’s too confined by society’s rules. Forrest, on the other hand, is truly free. He’s rebellious of the world’s rules and doesn’t care. He’s going to be who he’s going to be, and he won’t let anyone stop him.
This part of Jenny’s character in contrast with Forrest’s really comes out in her scene with Forrest on the bridge. Her own and society’s expectations of her are forcing her to leave. She is forced to fit into the mold that she and the world have chosen for her, but we see that she is really regretting her choice, and that she is, deep down, as heartbroken to leave Forrest as Forrest is to be left.
Besides character, Jenny probably also has some of the most interesting symbolism in this movie. Her and Forrest’s scene praying in the cornfield sparked one of the most consistent and prevalent extended symbols in the movie: birds.
“Dear God, make me a bird so I can fly, far, far away from here…”
Jenny’s prayer is answered… many, many, many times. She says it herself in the bridge scene I mentioned with Forrest. I won’t get too far into that for reasons you’ll get if you’ve seen the movie, but the metaphor she used for flying is also extended to the New Year’s Eve scene when Jenny is standing on the ledge. Ever wonder why there was a rock song playing in the background of that scene? It definitely conflicts with the tone of the scene, until you realize that that’s not just any rock song in the background – it’s Free Bird. Jenny realizes that she is a bird, and that she is free to some things, what she prayed for, yet there are many more things that she is not in control of, and that’s the conflict in this scene. Then, at the very end of the movie, (major spoiler alert again) we can see birds flying away at Jenny’s grave. She has become free in all ways, fulfilled her purpose, reunited with Forrest, turned away from her old life, and let God take her, to fly far, far away, what she prayed for, although as an angel, not as a bird. She is finally free. That is what makes this ending so bittersweet. Jenny, in her final days, was truly free. The arc of freedom started at the beginning of the movie has finally come to a close, and she is happy with herself.
I could definitely go on, and given the movie’s length and the shallowness of the searching that I’ve built this whole thing on, I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface in analyzing this movie, but already, it’s like I’ve seen a whole new movie, just as entertaining as the first. It was honestly really fun looking at this movie from a different perspective, even if some of it is pretty obvious looking back. Forrest Gump is a classic, not just because of amazing cinematography and score, casting and acting, concept or plot or any of that, but also because of the characters, the real, genuine, relatable characters who tie this whole movie together. It’s one of this movie’s greatest strengths, even though it has so many: the people driving the plot forward. Forrest Gump is not just a good movie. There are lots of good movies. Forrest Gump is good not because of what it is at face value, but because of how far beyond face value it goes. For these reasons, I think I can be pretty confident when I say that Forrest Gump is the best movie that has ever been made.
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