Winter 1994, Volume 2, Number 1

Is "Forrest Gump" the 1990's "unavailable man"?

I can't stop thinking about Forrest Gump. Why does this movie, which I found so emotionally satisfying, keep nagging at me? I even took my seven year-old son to see it -- twice. As a parent, I appreciated the triumph of innocence over a world of pain and upheaval. But still this movie nagged at me. One reason was the obvious cop-out by director Robert Zemeckis, when he has Gump (played by Tom Hanks) address the Vietnam War protest at the Lincoln Memorial. Gump has returned from Vietnam a war hero, and by chance he ends up on stage wearing his Medal of Honor over his Army dress uniform. Introduced to the crowd by an Abbie Hoffman figure with a penchant for the F-word, Gump is asked to give his opinion of the war.

At the critical moment, however, a police officer pulls the plug on the PA system, and we never hear Gump's opinion. In fact, Gump has no opinions beyond the now famous, "Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what youre going to get." Nevertheless, Gump appeals to that which is good and sweet and child-like in all of us. Insulated by his handicap from learning lessons of violence, hate and jingoism, Gump floats through life keeping his child-like innocence in tact. And life, for the most part, cooperates. He's an All-American football hero, wins the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, becomes a World Champion ping-pong player, and becomes fabulously wealthy in the shrimping business. He influences world leaders and events. Even Elvis Presley owes his trademark hip-swivel to Forrest Gump. And after years of devotion, Gump marries his childhood sweetheart. Though he loses Jenny (presumably to AIDs), he gains a son by whom he, the father, is redeemed. Forrest Gump, Jr. is not mentally handicapped. (If Tom Hanks wins an Oscar for this film, it will be mainly for that moment when Gump learns that his son is normal.) Gump's success could be called synchronistic or providential (or both), depending on one's spiritual orientation.

We share his successes because we all have felt inadequate against the challenges life presents. Gump's innocence redeems all of us who have lost so much of our child-like qualities in a hostile and competitive world that relentlessly destroys innocence. This universal need for innocence -- this need to feel good about ourselves -- drives all kinds of political and social impulses, from New Age thinking and human rights to America: Love It or Leave It patriotism and the anti-abortion movement. But Gump's appeal is all heart and little head. His comprehension is limited only to the personal and the internal. Because of his handicap, Gump is incapable of critically assessing the world outside himself and acting on that critique. Gump is silent on the Vietnam War because having an opinion on a controversial public event would be inconsistent with his fundamentally private persona. Of course, he doesn't have to act in the larger socio-political realm.

When his shrimping venture is failing, God intervenes with a hurricane, destroying the Gulf Coast fleet save one boat -- Forrest Gump's. He becomes fabulously wealthy overnight and is featured on the cover of Forbes magazine. We never see the suffering of the shrimpers (and their families) whose boats were destroyed. In Vietnam, Gump earns the Medal of Honor because (following Jenny's advice) he runs in the heat of battle ("Just look out for yourself, Forrest," she says.) Only accidentally does he become a hero. He returns to the scene to find his only close friend, Bubba, and in the process saves several members of his platoon. When as a bored multi-millionaire he decides to run across America just for the heck of it, he cannot comprehend the hordes of followers and devotees attracted to his singular vision. Of course, these followers don't realize that Gump's vision is strictly personal and internal. And Gump assumes no responsibility for their disillusionment when he suddenly stops running and announces that he's going home. Indeed, these devotees, who believe that Gump has some larger moral vision, are made to look foolish. Through no fault of his own, Gump cannot comprehend the larger world. Though he can experience moral outrage when Jenny is abused by her anti-war activist boyfriend, Gump is oblivious to the violence and corruption of a senseless war.

There is no Citizen Gump who might use his fame, fortune and moral outrage to challenge violence and corruption and help redeem the larger culture. At the socio-political level, Gump is the unavailable man described in Sam Keens Fire in the Belly. "The unavailable man is encumbered within himself . . . . unavailable to give himself to others or live vibrantly in the larger world." By contrast, writes Keen, available men are not morally anesthetized and can still be outraged by corruption and moved to act on larger stages of life. Available men, he adds, realize that it is our vocation to become protectors of the powerless and healers of the broken. Curiously, the unavailable man appears to be a deep strain in the American character, as noted by Alexis de Tocqueville more than 100 years ago: "Each person withdrawn into himself, behaves as though he is a stranger to the destiny of all the others. His children and his good friends constitute for him the whole of the human species. . . . he exists only in himself and for himself alone. And if on these terms there remains in his mind a sense of family, there no longer remains a sense of society."

Not concidentially, the way of the unavailable man is strikingly similar to the way of the consumer, responsible only for one's self or family unit. For Americans, this insularity is reinforced from cradle-to-grave by countless commercial messages and stories hammering home the imperative of self-fulfillment. By contrast, consider how rarely we find popular culture stories of citizens organizing to challenge and change the status quo. This experience happens every day in America, from neighbors challenging the location of a hazardous waste landfill to workers organizing for better pay and working conditions. Yet our popular culture ignores this side of our American heritage, and for good reason. Commercial sponsors want neat, clean solutions in upscale settings. That's why the working-class, social-psychological dramas of Playhouse 90 and Kraft Television Theater in the 1950s -- despite their enormous popularity -- were jettisoned by sponsors in favor of more simplistic sit-coms and police dramas featuring glamorous heroes and heroines. Many Americans are more comfortable not knowing the dark side of our history.

Stressed out by the pressures of day-to-day living, it's all they can do to keep from falling off the treadmill. This need for denial explains much of the appeal of voices like Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh, who blithely claim that the problem with America is not America; its the people who say there's a problem. Unable to even imagine the conditions under which they might join with others to change the world, many Americans feel angered by liberals, progressives, black activists, feminists or anyone else who would force them to confront the ugliness and pain of the world," writes Michael Lerner in a recent Washington Post op-ed entitled "In Gump We Trust". Noting the film's brilliance as a piece of political propaganda for the status quo, Lerner says the reactionary right is succeeding in creating communities of meaning based on salvation through not knowing. Liberals, however, fail to appreciate the working class desire to be born again . . . to escape the pollution of the modern world.

By focusing only on civil liberties, tolerance and separation of church and state, liberals fail to provide a larger coherent vision, a progressive politics of meaning . . . a vision of community which validates the inherent worth of each American. Into this vacuum, adds Lerner, rushes an image of liberals as fast-talking elitists . . . unable to see the majority as more than a group of know-nothings. Bringing to life a larger progressive vision will be all the more difficult because of our popular culture's relentless focus on the individual and its validation of the status quo. But one step toward this larger vision is the awareness that our popular culture is political, and that its meanings must be critically and relentlessly challenged. We can begin by appreciating the beauty of Gump's innocence and devotion, while recognizing that he is incapable of challenging the larger society's shortcomings and resisting the nostalgia that puts us to moral sleep. Because of his handicap, Gump cannot choose; but we can.

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