Forrest Gump is often brilliantly staged and well-played; but it's no more than a sort of miniaturised car wash for the emotions, a set of bonsai revolving brushes wearing away at the edge of the audience's eyes till at last the tear ducts release their drippy cargo. It represents a recovery for the director after Death Becomes Her only according to the strict logic that a successful attempt to do something cheesy must be rated higher than a failure to achieve something that wasn't worth doing in the first place.
There have been films about human blanks before, notably Zelig and Being There. But where the absent heroes of those films suggested a hollowness in the world that responded to them, Forrest Gump goes right out and celebrates the blank. Dumb is smart and wise is stupid. There isn't a whiff of satire about the whole project. When Gump encounters an institution of any kind - school, army, corporate business - the result is always offbeat success for him and validation for the status quo. Forrest Gump is a schmaltz-Zelig, a Being There engineered from the genetic material of a Hallmark card.
Tom Hanks in the title-role does what he can to fill in the blank. In some ways this is familiar territory, with its theme of a childish sensibility in an adult body (Son of Big, anyone?). He suggests idiocy by keeping his fingers straight, by turning his head an abrupt smooth 90 degrees, by running (Gump does a lot of running) with his feet flat and his hands pumping high. His eyes have a wary flatness to them. At first, his accent sounds strange - like Cary Grant trying to impersonate a redneck - but he manages to get a fair bit of mileage out of its false nave drawl. A number of repeated formulations in the film, like 'for no particular reason' or '. . . and that's all I have to say about that', have the nagging familiarity, if not the distinctiveness, of catchphrases in waiting.
All his life Forrest Gump is obsessed with the girl who shares her seat with him on his first trip in a school bus, Jenny, and the woman she grows up into, played by Robin Wright. Jenny was sexually abused by her father from a young age, and tries all the danger of freedoms of the Sixties and Seventies in a search for her vanished self-esteem. Gump, meanwhile, serves his country, for no particular reason, becomes a champion ping-pong player, for no particular reason, and so on.
Clearly a long-lasting and evolving intimacy between these two will take some faking. For instance, does Gump have a sense of humour or not? If not, he's hardly going to appeal to someone much more sophisticated. But if he does, then the film's portrayal of this sweet idiot loses its last ghost of plausibility. Director and screenwriter (Eric Roth, adapting Winston Groom's novel) fudged the issue by giving Jenny a half-funny line, after the two of them have had a half- hearted fumble in her dorm room, and giving Gump precisely half a laugh - a muffled brief explosion which might be mirth or just nerves.
The film only fitfully gives the hero's point of view in the strict sense, notably in a rapid, childlike montage of his commanding officer in the army as the last of a long line of self-sacrificing soldiers - a series of lookalikes in historical costumes thudding notably to the ground. At other times, the camera shows us episodes from Jenny's dissolute life about which Gump can know nothing - promiscuity, drugs, half-serious suicide attempts. But Jenny can't be allowed to have a proper point of view.
Her rebelliousness is treated entirely as displaced personal pain, and the film comes very close to saying that there was nothing in American political life to feel legitimate anger about in the Sixties and Seventies. Certainly, Jenny's counter- culture cronies are fuelled by rage, and treat her psychotically. There are great holes in this portrait, manifest in plot terms. It's all very pretty that Jenny and Gump are reunited at an anti-war rally on the Mall in Washington, embracing knee-deep in the Reflecting Pool, but she has in fact mistaken him for a member of Veterans for Peace. Whether she finds out her mistake early or late, it has to make a difference to her, but in Forrest Gump we are shown nothing that might burst that bubble.
The staging of the Vietnam sequences is all the more repellent for being technically accomplished. It requires an extraordinary perversion of the imagination to make a firefight look so real, and then use it as a backdrop for an act of doggy heroism that Reader's Digest would find too corny, with Gump acting like a golden retriever and fetching casualty after casualty from the jungle. Napalm in Forrest Gump is a beguiling special effect, a purely visual experience.
At two hours and 20 minutes, the film is long enough to contain a wealth of low points. One would have to be composer Alan Silvestri's use of a choir humming at a particularly wheedling moment. Another would be some staggeringly crude and anachronistic product-placement, involving Nike athletic footwear. Impossible to omit would be a death, hintedly from Aids, that makes Ali McGraw's genteel passing in Love Story seem like a video nasty.
The contribution from Industrial Light and Magic is variable. The faking of a meeting between Gump and President Kennedy is lovingly realised, but a similar sequence with President Johnson is bizarrely tatty, with LBJ's digitised face not quite keeping pace with his moving body. Perhaps standards are allowed to rise or fall with the status of the subject. That would explain the strange poignance of a scene of Gump and John Lennon on the Dick Cavett Show - the only convincingly emotional moment in the film. Lennon is given a few seconds of eerie contemplative silence, as if considering his fate, and then the television image fades. The effect is oddly powerful, but perhaps people who respond more genuinely to a pop star's mortality than to anything else in the last 40 years should not attempt a tapestry of American life over that period - even a tapestry in the form of a cartoon strip.