Should “Forrest Gump” be viewed as conservative propaganda?
“The film is nonpolitical and thus nonjudgmental,” Tom Hanks said of Forrest Gump (1994), the year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture and landmark moment in Hanks’ illustrious film career. Yet, in the more than two decades since its release, Forrest Gump has been repeatedly labeled a piece of conservative propaganda that acts as a condemnation of the counterculture movements of the 1960s and a promotion of general conservative values. It has appeared a number of times on “Best Conservative Films” lists and publications, and has been analyzed by film scholars to that end.
During his Academy Award acceptance speech, Forrest Gump producer Steve Tisch said, “Forrest Gump isn’t about politics or conservative values. It’s about humanity. It’s about respect, tolerance and unconditional love.” Tisch and Hanks are both known Democrats.
In a Cinema Journal article, Jennifer Wang posits that the film idolizes the family values of the 1950s. She writes that the film takes all the flaws and excess of American culture in the 60s and 70s and pushes them on the character of Jenny (Robin Wright), who dies of AIDS for her lifestyle, while Gump (Tom Hanks) follows the opposite path and discovers immense success. This juxtaposition reaffirms the values of conservatism as a less tumultuous way of life.
1994 saw what’s come to be known as the Republican Revolution in full swing. The term refers to the GOP success in the 1994 U.S. midterm elections, which resulted in a republican gain of 54 seats in the House of Representatives and a pickup of eight seats in the Senate. Wang argues Republican politicians used the success of the film to influence people toward conservatism at a pivotal election time. Others agree.
“It seems the film promotes a very conventional conservative political position,” said Daniel Herbert, a professor of media culture at the University of Michigan. “While both Forrest and Jenny experience many of the most notable historical events of the era, Jenny’s anti-conformist lifestyle is made to look very unappealing.”
It’s arguable that Forrest Gump became viewed as a conservative film less because of its actual narrative content but because of its relevance and usage in 1994’s culture. Salisbury University professor James Burton wrote in his book Hollywood vs. America that “the film’s content and advertising campaign were affected by the cultural climate of the 1990s, which emphasized family values and American values.” He claimed that this climate influenced the apolitical nature of the film, which allowed for many different political interpretations. Burton points out that “many conservative critics and magazines initially either criticized the film or praised it only for its non-political elements. Only after the popularity of the film was well-established did conservatives embrace the film as an affirmation of traditional values.”
Comedian Evan Sayet takes a less analytical perspective, saying, “The entire point of the movie Forrest Gump was that the smartest liberal was stupider than a mentally retarded conservative.” Of course, Gump is slow and has learning disabilities, he isn’t retarded.
Not everyone sees Gump as a pro-conservative piece of propaganda. Many feel it’s simply a portrait of a man moving through a number of decades and political seasons that are represented in a nonpolitical fashion, allowing the perceived response to be colored by the viewer’s own belief system.
Joe Leydon of Austin CultureMap references interviews with Hanks and the film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, which raised the question of a political agenda. He writes, “Throughout the group interviews I observed, Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis seemed genuinely shocked by any suggestion that they had any sort of hidden agenda. As they saw it, Forrest Gump was an engagingly whimsical and resolutely apolitical story of a slow-talking, slow-witted Southerner who wanders through four decades of American history, touching the lives of both the great and the obscure. Yes, Forrest displays courage under fire while serving as a soldier during the Vietnam War. And, sure, he doesn’t protest against the war after his return home. But, hey, that doesn’t mean he’s meant to represent President Nixon’s so-called Silent Majority.”
He goes on to include quotes from Hanks: “Honest to God, I didn’t see that coming. I just didn’t see that coming. I don’t think of us involved with the picture did. This obviously is in retrospect, but I think it comes down to that very key part of the film that deals with Vietnam. I think it’s because we presented Forrest in Vietnam in a nonpolitical way, and that fed into the conservative revisionist history that says, ‘We lost Vietnam because of subversive activities of the American public back home.’”
Back in 1995, an article in The Denver Post ran after the film was selected as the #1 spot filler on the National Review’s “100 Best Conservative Movies of all Time” list. It said, “Forrest goes to college solely on account of his athletic prowess. Shouldn’t conservatives be among the first to denounce this perversion of the traditional mission of a cultural institutions? And when Forrest lands in the Army, well, here’s a certified idiot with an IQ of 75—an idiot who, according to his drill sergeant, has the potential to be a general officer. It reminded me of a hospital scene in that subversive liberal book, All Quiet on the Western Front, wherein the soldiers joke that if you’re wounded and get a wooden leg, you become a civilian, but if you get a wooden head, you can be a general. Is Forrest Gump’s opportunity to be an officer a message that gives you much confidence in the military? Is that what conservatives want us to think about the military establishment they’re always urging us to support—that it could be run by idiots? In actual fact, Forrest Gump isn’t a particularly liberal or conservative film. It is a continuation of a literary genre that started with Voltaire’s Candide and continued through Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn—send an innocent out into the great wide world, and use that naive vantage to satirize the greed, shallowness and hypocrisy of that world.”
Colorful Media Revolution adds to that sentiment, saying, “Conservatives, especially during the 1994 congressional elections, latched on to the film’s less-than-favorable depiction of radical Liberalism. But, their analysis overlooked the fact that this film does not advocate for a return to past values, and instead recommends a rationed approach to progress. As a character born from deep within American history, Gump breaks the oppression of earlier generations, navigates the tumult of cultural flux, and leads the nation from past to present—not the other way around.”
One could say Forrest Gump appeals to conservatives primarily through mocking things they dislike, not by offering any true conservative vision. It resonates with conservatives because they can identify with the way Forrest succeeded in life and Jenny failed, but that’s not necessarily the intended perspective behind the film. It certainly doesn’t promote radical behaviors, and makes it clear that rejecting society’s structure can lead to poor results. But it certainly doesn’t suggest that living in retrospect is the answer to society’s flaws.
The film proposes each person’s journey is up to their own desires and is built upon both the successes and failures of the individual and society as a whole. It offers that progress comes from a balance between radical and regressive beliefs, wherein it’s not good to be reckless but it’s also not worth being rooted in strict regulation. Forrest doesn’t judge people or subscribe to any particular identity but his own as he traverses the best and worst moments of the decades, but uses his experiences and encounters with people on both sides of the political spectrum to develop himself into an admirable person.