In which an addled man stumbles through recent American history, kind of like George W. Bush.
A tidbit of reality, courtesy of the Commerce Department: “The U.S. film and television industries, which directly employ more than 250,000 workers, now generate a $4.5 billion trade surplus for the United States – second only to that of the aircraft and aerospace industry?’
I quote these words from Edward Deutsch, a former government official, writing last year in the Department of Commerce periodical Business America. Well might Mr. Deutsch boast of American audiovisual power and cheer on its advance. “At a time when some U.S. industries are facing shrinking shares in foreign markets,” he wrote, “American cinematic productions continue to account for roughly 85 percent of the films shown on European screens?’ Put it this way: If our film and TV industries now generate a $4.5 billion trade surplus, their annual exports must be, say, $4.6 billion. This, in contrast to the automotive industry, which posts exports of $12 billion to $13 billion a year – not an impressive sum when you realize that our movies (unlike our ears and trucks) are assembled with very few foreign-made parts; that the auto industry (unlike the movies) contributes mightily to a trade deficit; and, of course, that the name “Chevrolet” sounds to much of the world like “Last Resort,” whereas “Paramount” still means what it says.
Having long been both tool and symbol of the American empire, moving images are now becoming its substance as well. So when a big-deal movie self-consciously embodies an image of America – as do Forrest Gump and True Lies – we might ask not only what the picture means to a domestic audience but also whether it might mean something different to viewers elsewhere, who perhaps do not share our happiness.
Forrest Gump – Robert Zemeckis’s wonderfully lucrative excursion through recent U.S. history, as it might be understood by a sweet-natured simpleton – offers any number of pleasures to viewers, both domestic and foreign. Among them are Tom Hanks’s restrained and moving performance in the title role, a handful of gee-whiz special effects and a mini-gallery of landscape and genre pictures that rival Cole’s and Mount’s. But the greatest pleasure the picture affords Americans is most likely a sense of relief; Forrest Gump assures us that we’ve awakened from the nightmare of history; that all is forgiven, and most has already been forgotten.
To start with the jokes: Forrest Gump allows us to enjoy the sort of insult comedy that would zoom over its own hero’s head, as it labels various activities suitable for idiots: playing football and ping-pong, serving in the Army, writing slogans, meeting the President. A thoughtful viewer might note that some of these activities are less innocent than others; the movie merely proposes that they represent various levels of danger (and opportunity) for the participant. That’s the first act of leveling performed by Forrest Gump – to put jogging on a par with soldiering in Vietnam.