Director Robert Zemeckis’s film Forrest Gump is full of cinematographic elements that enhance the viewers’ understanding of the characters and the plot that they add to. The casting and personalities of the characters are vital to the development of the plot. Special effects create the illusion of Forrest’s involvement in history. The dialogue adds to both the comedy and the plot development. The screenplay is world class, and the special effects on Lieutenant Dan’s legs are almost revolutionary. Zemeckis’s mastery of the screenplay is probably best shown in how he is able apply his views on the world and expertise around the camera to transform the movie from a happy, bright beginning to a dark ending. Forrest is an American hero who Zemeckis hoped to make a model for how Americans should act. The cinematography and film techniques in Forrest Gump are used to shed light on the emotions of the characters throughout the film, develop the plot, and make sense of Zemeckis’s America.
Forrest Gump is an unconventional film with an unconventional plot. Forrest is the only thing the plot continuously revolves around – the rest of the plot is always changing and transforming. This type of movie is called a biopic, a “biography” for a character. It is literally Forrest’s life story, giving the viewer a real connection to his character. “For the first two hours of the film we are told what has happened in Forrest’s life up until this point. Then, suddenly, for the last part of the film (about 14 minutes) we see things as they happen from then.” (Villela 1). Forrest is an honest, innocent man who stumbles into history and keeps his head held high through torment and struggle. His life story is also one of America. “We follow his adulthood from Vietnam to the Reagan years and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and through this time he stumbles from one historical moment to another.” (Villela 1). Jenny is “plagued by her past” and has a very turbulent life, struggling to find her true identity throughout the film. Because of this, the audience can have a problem identifying with her. “Jenny is a much tougher character for a general audience to figure out because we see her in flashes and hear things about her in dialogue and her motivations get clouded but they’re real.” (Villela 1). Lieutenant Dan is another turbulent character who represents America’s struggles during the Vietnam War. Mama is Forrest’s mother, not a perfect mother, but his mother, and he loves her. The film uses revolutionary special effects to depict historic characters and their assassinations, which gave the viewer an idea of the exact time the film took place. The audiences sees “Nathan Bedford Forrest, Civil War Lieutenant General and KKK member, a distant relative of Forrest’s who illustrates we needn’t be prisoners of our past. We also see Elvis, John Lennon, JFK, George Wallace, Lyndon Johnson, RFK, and Nixon, all in a somewhat exaggerated fashion but still reflecting the way the public perceives them.” (Villela 1). The dialogue and editing adds to both the comedy and emotion of the movie. For example, in one of the film’s funnier moments, editing is used to add comedy to the plot of the otherwise depressing situation. “Forrest’s mother tells him that “You’re not different.” Then it cuts to the principal saying “The boy’s different, Mrs. Gump.” (Villela 1, Forrest Gump).
The screenplay by Eric Roth has the complexity of modern fiction, not the formulas of modern movies. The casting in the film was also very skilled; Tom Hanks may have been the only actor who would’ve been able to correctly portray Forrest’s emotions. “I’ve never met anyone like Forrest Gump in a movie before, and for that matter I’ve never seen a movie quite like Forrest Gump. Any attempt to describe him will risk making the movie seem more conventional than it is… I can’t think of anyone else as Gump, after seeing how Hanks makes him into a person so dignified, so straight-ahead.” (Ebert 1). The uniqueness of Forrest’s character is strangely attractive to the audience, and ironically causes them to identify with Forrest even more. Director Robert Zemeckis’s expertise in special effects plays a key role in allowing him to place Forrest in seemingly real historical situations. “In a sequence that will have you rubbing your eyes with its realism, he addresses a Vietnam-era peace rally on the Mall in Washington.” (Ebert 1). These revolutionary special effects are also utilised on Lieutenant Dan after he loses his legs in Vietnam.
Another important element in Forrest Gump is the changing moods throughout the movie. The film looks at first like a bright and happy, optimistic trip through the baby-boom era but turns out to be a dark and driven work, haunted by violence and the grotesque. Zemeckis often manages to present both of these moods within a single scene, sometimes within a single shot – proof of a rare complexity of vision and a rare grasp of form of cinema. Director Robert Zemeckis combines a mastery of wide-screen composition and camera movement to create an original and moving experience. “In the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and other great filmmakers of old Hollywood, Zemeckis is both a superb, commercially successful entertainer and an artist with a distinctive worldview.” (Kehr 1). These tendencies and beliefs are critical in the making of Forrest Gump. Zemeckis elaborates his idea of America that embraces vulgarity and beauty, polar opposites of our society. For example, Zemeckis brilliantly depicts bullying at school and the grotesqueness of war, but also shows the harmony of peaceful protests and Forrest’s genuine love for Jenny, one of the audience’s’ main attraction to the film. Contrasts between characters is also an essential element of the plot: Forrest is naturally free, Jenny is permanently trapped. Forrest discovers his gift of speed when he breaks free from his leg braces, and Jenny is trapped in a spiral of drug abuse, sex, and alcoholism that leads her down the wrong path. The war scenes in “Forrest Gump” rival any other war scenes in film, mostly due to the emotions expressed by the soldiers, and particularly Tom Hanks, when he saves Lieutenant Dan from death. The Vietnam War isn’t the only vision of Zemeckis’s dystopian America, however, his depiction of the rural South is often very grotesque. The polar opposites of Southern society are depicted: Forrest’s plantation-like estate surrounded by trees and green grass, and Jenny’s childhood home, a miserable shack where she grew up with her drunk, abusive father. These two different worlds created by Zemeckis express his ideas about American society and its grotesqueness.
Tom Hanks was an Oscar nominee in 1994 for a reason: he didn’t overplay his role as Forrest. Taking a cue from Zelig, a fictional documentary in which a man achieves notoriety for his ability to look and act like anyone he meets, Zemeckis places Forrest in a vivid historical context — he talks with JFK, LBJ and Nixon, among other luminaries. Forrest is everything we admire in the American hero, the irony and the overarching tragedy of the film is that nobody can stay around him for long, particularly the love of his life Jenny. Zemeckis intended Forrest to act as a satirical model for how Americans should act and the most important behavior Zemeckis hoped to force on his audience was Forrest’s “capacity for hope. It’s an ambitious goal in this age of rampant cynicism.” (Travers 1).
Forrest Gump is a revolutionary film for many reasons. The casting and personalities of the characters (mainly Tom Hanks as Forrest) are vital to the development of the plot. Special effects create the illusion of Forrest’s involvement in history, surrounding him with such people as President Johnson and Elvis. The dialogue and editing adds to both the comedy and the plot development. The screenplay is world class, and the special effects on Lieutenant Dan’s legs are almost revolutionary, depicting the horrific effects of the Vietnam War. Zemeckis’s mastery of the screenplay is probably best shown in how he is able apply his views on the world and expertise around the camera to transform the movie from a happy, bright beginning to a dark ending. Forrest is an American hero who Zemeckis hoped to make a model for how Americans should act. Forrest Gump is a great American film for a reason: Zemeckis’s mastery of film paints the picture of a satirical America in a way that both astounds and affects his audience.