There’s a movie called Forrest Gump. You’ve heard of it. And when you saw the headline of this article, you had one of two reactions:
“Yeah, why do people hate Forrest Gump now?” you thought, frowning at the seemingly impossible cynicism it must take to dislike this contemporary classic.
“People hate it because it’s bad, duh,” you thought, rolling your eyes at the suggestion that this schmaltzy piece of garbage could ever be intelligently defended.
I’m not here to build up or tear down one side or the other. But isn’t it interesting how polarizing this film has become? There’s no middle ground. It was instantly beloved upon release, but it seems to be universally dismissed now. What’s changed in the twenty years since it came out? For starters, film culture has gone through some massive shake-ups, and certain ideologies pretty much reign supreme. When you get right down to it, there are five reasons why people in 2014 hate Forrest Gump:
1) “Well, I Never Liked It To Begin With”
We might as well get this one out of the way right off the top. Maybe you hated Forrest Gump from the moment you first saw it. Maybe you found its sickly-sweet tone patronizing. Maybe you found its American history travelogue construction contrived. Maybe you’re allergic to feathers. The fact is that there are plenty of perfectly valid reasons to dislike Forrest Gump, and there are plenty of people who would take issue with the suggestion that their opinion of the film was at all influenced by the general tenor of film discussion in the last decade. It’s not particularly interesting cinematically, and it’s not particularly stimulating intellectually. Forrest Gump is far from perfect, and it wasn’t universally acclaimed upon release.
2) The Appeal To Academy Authority
Forrest Gump wasn’t just financially and critically successful; it swept the Academy Awards that year, taking home Best Picture, Director, Actor, and Adapted Screenplay, among others. Unfortunately for the film, two of its fellow Best Picture nominees are arguably the most beloved films in internet history: Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. For some reason, people are obsessed with the Oscars, and cries of “I can’t believe [Movie X] lost to [Movie Y]!!!” have echoed through the halls of IMDb (or its pre-internet equivalent, whatever that is) since time immemorial. Since 1994, Pulp Fiction has become a favorite of young cinephiles, and for good enough reason. It’s a decent entry point into independent cinema and non-traditional narrative structure. As for Shawshank, its easily digestible story and vague themes of “hope” have made it a hit with just about everyone who’s ever owned a television and a basic cable package. It infamously sits atop IMDb’s list of its 250 highest-rated movies to this very day. Forrest Gump is a softer, simpler film than either of these, so the notion that it could beat either of them for Best Picture is an infuriating one to many people. This isn’t even about Forrest Gump, really. It’s about people’s personal tastes not being validated by the Academy. Forrest Gump was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
3) A Hatred of Sentimentality
“Feel-good” as a descriptor is repellant to so many film buffs. To be blunt, people take themselves too seriously. Any film that tries to make them feel happy is immediately dismissed as “cheesy” or “schmaltzy.” Film culture has become so cynical, and for some there’s an inherent assumption that movies have to be all “dark and gritty” to be worthwhile. This is nothing new, of course. To some degree, sentimentality has always been viewed as a little lowbrow. Really, it’s nothing more than typical high-horse snobbery. Feel-good movies are seen as “for the masses” and therefore “lowest common denominator” by default. Which leads us to…
4) Convenient Amnesia of the Film’s Better Elements
Maybe the question shouldn’t be “Why do people hate this movie now?” Maybe instead it should be “Why have people forgotten all the great things about this movie?” Any dismissal of Forrest Gump for its mawkishness also throws aside its trenchant political commentary. Think of the way this film depicts veterans. Isn’t Lieutenant Dan’s struggle with his disability so much more relevant today, given the recent scandals over the Department of Veterans Affairs’ failure to properly assist veterans? What about its subversively dark depiction of hippie culture? Is the film actually criticizing American culture by suggesting that so much of it came accidentally from a mentally disabled man? The film is ripe for discussion in many ways, so why do people act like it doesn’t have anything going on beneath the surface?
5) Sacrificing Sacred Cows
This is a big one, and it’s infected film culture for a while. Now, don’t think I’m disparaging any contrarian opinions. In fact, I value viewpoints that oppose my own. They force me to reconsider my own views, and obviously it’s never a good idea to ignore every idea you disagree with. That being said, attacking a film just because it’s popular is silly. It’s an admittedly attractive prospect. Contrarianism can make you feel smart, and there can be a thrill in going against the grain. And hey, if you’ve got a coherent, intelligent reason for not liking something, then by all means share it. A problem arises, though, when people diss beloved films just for the sake of dissing them. Forrest Gump is an easy target. It’s soft enough to be criticized as meaningless fluff, but since it’s not largely heralded for intellectual reasons one can get away with not having to back up that criticism.
This isn’t an article about Forrest Gump. It’s about how we treat films like Forrest Gump, these crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking audience favorites that have become easy to disparage and hard to legitimately praise. It’s Forrest Gump’s 20th anniversary this week. Whatever your feelings on it, it’s due to be revisited. When you watch it this time, put aside what it means to other people. Think about what it means to you. That’s the only thing that should matter.