Our review of Forrest Gump (Blu-Ray), published November 30th, 2009, is also available.
"Gump! What's your sole purpose in this army?"
"To do whatever you tell me, drill sergeant!"
"God damn it, Gump! You're a god damn genius! This is the most outstanding answer I have ever heard. You must have a goddamn IQ of 160. You are goddamn gifted, Private Gump."
Perhaps the timing just wasn't right. Forrest Gump came along in 1994 and swept six Oscars including Best Picture, and there are a lot of great things I can (and will) say about the film. But when it went up against Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction that same year, there was bound to be controversy. Ultimately the mainstream appeal of Gump won out, and there have been complainers ever since. I could certainly do a whole article (epic sized, in fact) about the vagaries of the Academy, but that isn't my goal here. I simply want to point out that it is ironic that such an innocent, well meaning film could elicit such vociferous controversy. Forrest Gump is a film that appeals on many levels: as a biography of a unique individual, as a running theme on determinism vs. destiny, as a look at the life and times of America in the latter half of the 20th century, or simply as a well-crafted and performed story. I'll leave it to history to decide which film deserved which award, but Forrest Gump will remain a classic. Finally the film has been released in a manner in which it deserves with a fine two-disc special edition, the first such release from Paramount.
Facts of the Case
Forrest Gump tells his life story from a park bench to various passers-by, as we listen and watch it unfold.
Forrest Gump is not a "smart man." With an IQ of 75 he is almost destined to be thrown on the scrapheap of humanity as unworthy of an education. With the efforts of his mother (Sally Field), a boarding house owner, he gets his chance at a normal life, and destiny or pure happenstance takes over from there. Through the eyes of the innocent Forrest, we get a glimpse at virtually every important event of his lifetime, including the Vietnam War, Watergate, and pop culture.
Contrasting Gump's innocence and lack of guile or guilt is Jenny (Robin Wright), his childhood friend who explores the seamier side of American life, and other events such as the 1960s counter-culture. Between the two of them, we see the 1960s until the '90s almost in its entirety.
The film is much more than a dry recital of events. Brilliantly acted and written, it delves into themes that may be missed the first time around. A predominant theme is predestination vs. free will. Does Forrest happen to meet three Presidents and be on hand for so many historic events because of destiny? Certainly as he ambles along he didn't seek or intend to shape his life the way it turns out. When he is asked what he wants to be when he grows up, he rebuts, "Won't I still be me?" Jenny certainly believes she has a destiny: to shape the world according to her views and to become a famous folk singer. As she pursues this destiny it becomes apparent she is her own worst enemy. The third leg of the triangle that supports the film is Gary Sinise, who plays the crippled Lt. Dan, who took care of Forrest in Vietnam and needs to have the favor returned later. He believes he was cheated out of his destiny of following his ancestors with a glorious death on the battlefield. He doesn't realize a greater destiny awaits, or is it just the "luck" or happy accident of being tied to Forrest Gump? The film doesn't attempt to answer these questions, but allows them to be raised and thought about, which is something a good film does well.
Besides the philosophical aspects, the film does a fine job of presenting America, warts and all. Only a simple man like Forrest Gump could witness all these events and remain nonplused and innocent. Jenny takes on the emotional burdens of the time for us, though she handles them badly. Most of all, however, Forrest Gump is a story of life and love. The minutiae of Gump's life take equal importance with history and turn the film from documentary to fully fleshed story. The relationships he develops with his mother and friends, his decision to run back and forth across America rather than deal with the pain of his unrequited love, and the many humorous events that take place bring the audience back and forth from laughter to contemplation and even tears.
I hesitate to use the word "masterpiece," but the film reaches toward those lofty heights. It does so in several areas. The acting, writing, locations, and special effects (ground-breaking at the time, merely acceptable now) all add to create a sense of time, place, and character. The musical score adds a great deal of setting and entertainment value, especially for those of us who lived through those times. The acting is brilliant (never mind the detractors who claim Hanks's performance as over the top); Tom Hanks becomes Forrest Gump and it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role. Robin Wright turns in her best performance to date; and Gary Sinise shows what he is capable of yet again, and remains a woefully underrated actor.
Enough about the film for now. Many of you have seen it, and I don't want to go too deep into the story itself, other than to recommend it to those who missed out the first hundred times they had the opportunity to see it. What is important to most of you is the new two-disc set. I'm happy to say that the DVD release is excellent, though not perfect. The video quality is a mixed bag, with a good transfer but poor source elements that should have been cleaned up a bit better. Nicks, scratches, and other blemishes mar what is otherwise a fine picture with good clarity and a film-like look. Shadow detail is very good, as are black levels, though contrast is an uneven bag at times. All told, the film is more than watchable and is outstanding much of the time. Certainly it is the best the film has ever looked on home video, which is the least we would expect. The sound is also a mixture of good and less than good. The aggressive mix and terrific use of surrounds in scenes such as the Vietnam sequence offset the center-anchored nature of most of the rest of the track. Much of the film is dialogue, and it is always clearly understood and comes from the center. It can be a bit jarring when the surrounds kick in due to the quiet nature of most of the soundtrack. Still, it is also very good overall.
It is in the supplements that this release really shines. There are two commentary tracks making up the supplements on disc one. The first a combination of director Robert Zemeckis (using interview footage rather than a screen specific commentary), producer Steve Starkey and production designer Rick Carter, all recorded separately. I'm happy to get the track, though I wish Mr. Zemeckis had sat down with the film to go over the themes and give us more screen specific information. A few pauses reduce my appreciation of the track somewhat, but not so much as the second track from producer Wendy Finerman. She has some welcome insights into the book to movie transition, but interminably long pauses made me wish she had just been cut into the first commentary track.
Disc two has more than two hours worth of video supplements. First up is the 30-minute documentary "Through the Eyes of Forrest Gump," and was made at the time of the film's release. It does a decent job of giving insight to the film and the characters, though is definitely promotional in nature and doesn't have a lot of replay value. There are four new featurettes made for the DVD release. The first is "Seeing is Believing," a glimpse at 11 visual effects scenes, each given a short look but adding up to about an hour in its entirety. Next is "Through the Ears of Forrest Gump," a very short piece on the sound effects. Not as complete or satisfying as it could be, but valuable nonetheless. "The Magic of Makeup" is an eight-minute feature about the costuming, hairstyles, and makeup used in the film. Now we know who came up with that stupid haircut Forrest wears. Production designer Rick Carter hosts "Building the World of Gump," talking about the sets and design with concept drawings and film clips. Next are three screen tests, including one using a scene that didn't make it in the film. I always enjoy seeing these, especially when you see someone else who might have played a role, such as Haley Joel Osment as the young Forrest. A still gallery and two trailers complete the extras. I'm happy to report that all the video supplements on disc two also have subtitles in English and French, something that all studios should provide.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
That doesn't leave a lot for the prosecution to work with, but I'll give a bit of the negatives. I've always felt the second use of the feather to close the film was trite, and it was discussed in the commentary how they almost didn't use it. Sometimes first thoughts are best. I mentioned above my complaints with the DVD itself from the video and audio departments. I'm not sure much could have been improved with the sound, but I really expected better source elements from a highly acclaimed film only seven years old.
What's left is what might have been. Why not a real commentary track from Robert Zemeckis, and why not anything from Tom Hanks? Surely he owes a debt of gratitude for his fame to the film, though he had already won an Oscar for Best Actor the year before.
Forrest Gump actually had an effect on the culture, and "Gumpisms" became part of the vernacular for awhile. "Life is like a box of chocolates" and "Stupid is as stupid does" became fodder for comedians and popular sayings all at the same time. Such films deserve to be seen again, Oscar nods notwithstanding, and I'm very happy to have the film in my favorite format. Paramount deserves a pat on the back for finally jumping on board with the two-disc special edition; hopefully the first of many to come. This is a film that belongs in your collection.
Innocent! And that's all I have to say about that.
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