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You see them — folks of all ages and both sexes — floating out of the movie theater on waves of honorable sentiment. The kids look thoughtful, the grownups wistful. Couples are holding hands. This is not a Speed crowd; these people haven’t just exited a roller-coaster movie — they’ve completed an upbeat encounter session with America’s recent past. No question: one more audience has been Gumped.

Forrest Gump, a romantic epic starring Tom Hanks as a slow but sweet-souled Alabama boy who lucks into nearly every headline event of the past 40 years, is the summer sensation: a popular hit and an instant cultural touchstone. As the film’s director, Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), says, Gump has “no typical storytelling devices: no villain, no ticking clock, no burning fuse.” Yet it has exploded at the North American box office. In its second week of release, when ticket sales for even the most robust hits drop perhaps 20%, Gump held even. This past weekend it reached the $100 million mark; an industry savant predicts, quite conservatively, that it will finally earn $165 million.

Gump has warmed the collective heart of moviegoers; they spread the word, command their friends to go. They storm music stores for the two-CD album, featuring 32 songs from the rock era. They snap up copies of Winston Groom’s 1986 novel, on which the film was based, and copies of Gumpisms: The Wit and Wisdom of Forrest Gump, a pocket-size book of aphorisms from the novel. Then they run back to the theater to relive the experience. “It makes you look at things in a better way than you used to,” says W. Bart Edwards, a Gainsville, Florida, psychiatrist who worked in a veterans’ hospital and sees the film as a salve for Vietnam survivors. “It’s like a happy tear-jerking.”

Vietnam is just one nightmare in Forrest’s odd odyssey. Born with a 75 IQ and deemed an embarrassment by everyone except his loving mother (Sally Field), the boy discovers two things: he can run like a gale-force wind, and he will always love his neighbor Jenny (Robin Wright). He goes to war with one friend, a young black man (Mykelti Williamson) dreaming of shrimp boats, and comes home with another, career soldier Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise). And wherever he is, he bumps into famous people: George Wallace and Richard Nixon, J.F.K. and L.B.J., Elvis and John Lennon (all integrated onscreen with Hanks through ingenious special effects). Almost everyone Forrest knows dies. He survives, through his goodness and the miracle of idiot grace.

“I don’t want to sound like a bad version of ‘the child within,”‘ says co- producer Wendy Finerman, who discovered the novel in galleys nine years ago and nurtured the film to fruition. “But the childlike innocence of Forrest Gump is what we all once had. It’s an emotional journey. You laugh and cry. It does what movies are suppose to do: make you feel alive.”

The movie does that. It is a smart, affecting, easygoing fable with plenty of talent on both sides of the camera. The key ingredient is Hanks, the one actor whom the mass audience trusts as an exemplar of quality. He can sell a tough subject to tough customers because they know the film will not be so much about issues as about the decency with which his character faces up to them. That goes for Gump. “The film is nonpolitical,” Hanks says, “and thus nonjudgmental. It doesn’t just celebrate survival, it celebrates the struggle.”

Classically trained and sitcom-bred, Hanks knows that the starkest drama can always use a leavening of wit. For most of the film, he underplays Forrest’s reactions at a level somewhere between a fretful deadpan and the rural slyness of the early Andy Griffith. So when he releases his feelings at the end (when questions of fatherhood and family traits are involved), the scene gushes like a geyser.

So does the audience. “I want to stand up and yell, ‘Go, Gump, go!”‘ says Chris Jackson, a Chicago bartender. “I sat there with tears dripping down my face.” This is the common testimony: cheering and tearing. “People cheered at our audience-research sessions,” says Finerman, “so we knew we had something. What amazed us was that all four quadrants — older men and women, younger men and women — wanted to see it.” That’s another clue to Gumpmania: it’s a movie that makes grown men cry. From I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang to Field of Dreams, the male weepie has been a dependable genre. And Gump, to its credit, is not one of those cry-by-night (but you hate yourself in the morning) exercises in emotional blackmail. It’s fairly honorable about picking your heart’s pocket.

That must be what attracted Finerman, whose eight-year crusade to make this movie is already a Hollywood legend. In retrospect, though, Forrest Gump seems a can’t-miss proposition. Consider that the only three movies of the past two decades to win both the year’s box-office crown and the Oscar for Best Picture — Rocky, Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man — were canny, poignant fables of men in domestic crisis. Throw in two other high-grossing Oscar winners, Platoon and Terms of Endearment, and you have the recipe for a “mature,” feel-good smash. Let’s see: retarded man, family man, Vietnam hero and lots of decent folks on their deathbeds. The movie is not only a greatest-hits rendering of 25 years of Americana, it’s a distillation of humanist culture in commercial movies.

It is also a sleek Hollywoodizing, a ruthlessly canny face-lift of Groom’s novel. In the book, Forrest was just as naive but not quite so innocent or lucky: he had some sex, did some drugs and missed out on the nuclear family that in the movie Forrest finally gets to tend. In pumping up Jenny’s role, screenwriter Eric Roth transferred all of Forrest’s flaws — and most of the excesses Americans committed in the ’60s and ’70s to her. Wright’s Jenny is a frail soul in tailspin, a battered child in a beautiful woman’s body. And Forrest is her redeemer. The suspense of the movie is whether she will allow him to save her.

Zemeckis says, without apparent irony: “I imagined Norman Rockwell painting the baby boomers.” And that is Gump: a social tragedy sanitized for a Saturday Evening Post cover. It celebrates innocence, acceptance and, not least, good manners in a tale set in the very era when Americans were supposed to have misplaced these virtues. The movie offers a cheerful alternative history — a Golden Book version — of the Vietnam War: it’s all about the emotional triumphs of these nice American soldiers, and hardly a Vietnamese even appears. There are precious few villains: only the boys who throw rocks at young Gump, Jenny’s sexually abusive father and the SDS leader who slaps her around. Everyone else is either a celebrity or a victim.

For younger viewers, then, Forrest Gump serves as a gentle introduction to the ’60s: baptism not by fire but by sound track. And to those who raged, suffered or sinned through that insane decade, the movie offers absolution with a love pat. Whaddaya know? We waged a stupid war that destroyed both another country and the best part of ourselves; we tore up our streets and our psyches in a kind of Cultural Revolution; we practically killed ourselves with drugs — and it turns out we’re not guilty. By allowing us to relive all the evils of recent history through invulnerably innocent, uncontaminated Forrest, the movie lets us achieve a vicarious virtue.Thank you, Forrest Gump. We feel so much better.

“Filmmakers often say the American public doesn’t want complicated films full of thought,” says Field, who is outstanding as the heroic mom in this edgy valentine. “They are wrong. They underestimate the intelligence of the American audience.” But does Forrest Gump make you think? No, it makes you feel — or, at best, makes you think about what you feel, and about how long it has been since a movie found those remote corners of sympathy and sentiment.

From a film industry that softens virtually any contentious social issue — aids, the Holocaust, Vietnam — into a fable with a happy ending, Forrest is the ultimate sentimental figure. He embodies that noble Hollywood precept, the spiritual superiority of the handicapped. Forrest is not the ranter on the subway or the sullen, overgrown lad at the back of the class. He is — well, just who is he?

The neat trick about Forrest is he can symbolize so many people. New York Times columnist Frank Rich has compared him to Bill Clinton. But Forrest’s simple optimism and his success as an entrepreneur and a reviver of American confidence could make him an emblem of ’80s conservatism: not only Reaganomics but what Republicans might call Reaganethics. He’s E.T. with a little Gandhi thrown in. He’s Candide making the best of the worst of all possible worlds. And in his influence on events, from the capture of the Watergate burglars to John Lennon’s composition of the song Imagine, he seems almost omnipotent. All-innocent and all-powerful, the ideal guru for the nervous ’90s: Forrest God.

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