Forrest Gump (1994)

 

When I was a kid, I had the Forrest Gump soundtrack, despite never having watched the movie.  I’m not sure how that came about, except maybe that I’d developed an interest in music through the decades and that soundtrack seemed like a suitable way to get a completely random assortment of songs.  It was only on my full viewing of the film – now, for this blog – that I’ve seen how they were used in the film.  Occasionally, songs play an actual noteworthy role in setting mood or atmosphere, but far too often, we just get a few seconds’ splat against the eardrum as if they just crammed a jukebox in the audio track to see if anything sticks.  There’s a lot of random music in this movie.

Though I never knew the exact plot of Forrest Gump, I knew the basic gist of it:  a developmentally disabled man stumbles his way through key historical moments in recent history.  And since the most affecting event of Forrest’s generation was the Vietnam War, the conflict and its aftermath take up a significant proportion of the film.  Since the tone of the movie is light, we’re not really left much time to think about the deaths that occur, or the long-lasting effects of alcoholism and homelessness among veterans, or the trauma of abuse and depression.  So many shitty things happen in this movie, but we just have to shrug it off for the next zany thing Forrest comes up with!

I’m probably just a wet blanket.  But I don’t know, I’m sure most people have seen this film, but I don’t know of anyone who raves about it.  Nobody claims it as their favorite movie of all time, at least nobody I know.  (Maybe I’m wrong – and if so, feel free to share your love and reasons for it.)  But I’m not sure that it’s a story of deep emotional resonance.  I guess what bothered me was that Forrest is not a character who makes things happen – he simply reacts to things in his simple way and is rewarded with incredibly good luck.  All the while, he seems relatively unaffected by anything that comes his way – even, ultimately, his losses.

It is one of those movies that’s had a lasting impact on popular culture, for better or for worse – there’s a Bubba Gump restaurant in Times Square now, isn’t there? And who hasn’t quoted one of those famous lines of pseudo-wisdom?  That’s what this blog project is about, I keep reminding myself – watching the movies that have some kind of social significance, even if it’s in the form of one-liners.

That said, the movie does use a few unusual techniques to make it something more than the average life story: the telling-a-story-on-a-bench framing device (though I wish it had a bit more of a significant payoff, and I thought it would end with a crowd gathering around to hear his story); the naïve narrator, through whose eyes we see things that are familiar with a fresher perspective.  I’m just not sure what it all adds up to.  We’re swept along like a feather on the wind, and drop somewhere for a while until the wind picks up again.

 

Theme:  War

Which War?  Vietnam War

First Time Watching?  I’ve seen parts, but never in its entirety

Final Verdict:  That’s all I have to say about that.

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Platoon (1986)

 

Oh, Charlie Sheen, where did you go wrong?  You could have been a well-respected Oscar-worthy actor, but instead you went a little loco with all that tiger blood running through your veins.  Musta been the war.

When I was younger, I read a lot of books about the Vietnam conflict.  Mostly they were soldiers’ memoirs – the story of a sniper, the experiences of a tunnel rat.  The war was something that seemed so all-encompassing, as much a conflict at home as it was abroad.  Though I’m sure there were other disagreements of this sort in politics and society before Vietnam, this seems to be the foundation of the conservative-liberal debate today.  Where the differences in each group’s values and priorities grew apparent.

It was probably television that sparked my interest.  Storylines on my beloved Quantum Leap.  Then I discovered Tour of Duty in syndication somewhere.  Maybe even more than World War II, popular culture has figured into fictional and realistic portrayals of American troops in Vietnam.  It fascinates us in a different way than other wars, perhaps because its non-military effects have lasted so much longer.  We seek to explain their experiences, understand their horror, because of the way the war’s aftermath has lingered with its participants.

But the thing that I didn’t read much about – and probably didn’t think much about, even – were the lives of the Vietnamese, the people who survived (and didn’t survive) their homes destroyed, their communities shattered, their land covered in unexploded ordnance and poisonous chemicals.  Now we go out for pho without thinking too hard about what brought the restaurant owner here, what they were seeking and what they may have left behind.  I suspect there’s not much on American television or film that addresses that hole in the experience.  However, I know there are Vietnamese writers out there who are exploring this legacy, but I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t name one, nor have I read any of them.  It’s a slow process, but I’d like to think I’m getting closer to remedying the gap, for myself, anyway.

But that’s why the most affecting scene for me in Platoon was the one in which the soldiers ransack a village.  The troops shoot pigs, burn down thatch huts, hold a gun to a child’s head – all as a show of power, a warning against resistance.  We often try to see the actions of our own country at war as justified, if not in the individual forays than at least as a whole.

Platoon sets up this conflict as a dichotomy within Charlie Sheen’s soul – he holds parts of his two commanding officers’ attitudes, the bloodthirsty one and the guy resigned to his fate, trying to get through the day.  War exposes something carnal inside us, the instinct to survive battling against our more sophisticated desires.  Where does he end up falling?

I wanted to like this a little better, but I had some trouble seeing characters as individuals with unique perspectives, rather than as archetypes, representative of whichever side they fell in the big They/Us separation.  You learn early on who the Bad Guys are, and there’s not as much room for complexity.  Charlie Sheen’s character volunteers for the war because he wants to learn something – about himself, presumably – but all he learns is that war wasn’t what he expected it to be at all.

 

Theme:  War

Which War?  Vietnam War

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Winning?

 

The Deer Hunter (1978)

One of the most interesting things about this film is that, in a way, it’s really not about war much at all.  In fact, the screen time devoted to a wedding – its preparation, its celebration, its aftermath – far outstrips that spent in combat.  In fairness, war is the catalyst that drives so much of these characters’ actions, but the daily lives of these people, a close-knit community of Russian immigrant steelworkers in Pennsylvania, is what’s truly important.

I find myself complaining a little less about the length of these movies now that I’m a seasoned Oscar-film-watching veteran.  So many of them top out at three hours, and The Deer Hunter is no exception.  And yet, I didn’t struggle with the length of this one like I have with so many others.  Which is maybe surprising, considering how much of the first hour consists only of following a group of drunk dudes shout-singing at each other.  Voyeuristically, the viewer is plunged into the middle of the action without much of a sense of what’s going on, or who’s who, and yet, it gradually becomes clearer what the dynamics are between characters (even if one may still struggle with remembering names and faces…).

So much of the film revolves around this game of Russian roulette, which the guys first encounter in what seems to be a makeshift prison camp somewhere in Vietnam.  We don’t get many clues as to what’s happened to bring them to this point.  Instead, we focus on how they react under the intense stress of the situation.  Steven the newlywed can’t cope; he panics.  Robert DeNiro’s Michael takes charge, relying on the cooperation of his old roommate Nick for backup.  That’s when something changes for all of the men.

I mostly think of Christopher Walken as a cheesy guy, often mimicked for the sake of a joke.  The guy who appears dancing in a Fatboy Slim music video, who shows up in a wide array of films of varying quality.  But here he is tearing it up in a serious role that also happened to land him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Although the movie follows the law of Chekhov’s Gun (corollary: if a gun is used in Russian roulette, at some point, the gun will fire and kill a major character), it still manages to surprise in the meandering, unsettled way the soldiers’ lives resume after their service.  Michael doesn’t say much of his time in war, and yet he walks the town in his Special Forces uniform, mostly accepting the welcome return he receives from friends who stayed behind.  Nothing much seems to have changed for any of them.  And yet, not all of their number have come back whole.

War brings out an inner brutality in people that’s kept hidden in peacetime.  I’m not sure if it’s trauma or something else that triggers Nick’s transformation.  One shot is all it takes to kill a deer, Michael says.  One shot changes everything.  Big Buck Hunter this ain’t.

 

Theme:  War

Which War?  Vietnam

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Fuckin’ A