Everett CollectionTom Hanks as Forrest Gump, 1994.

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.

The next act of leveling is to put the laughable on the same plane as the laudable: Overcoming racism turns out to be as easy for good-hearted Forrest as teaching Elvis how to dance. It’s so easy, in fact, that we might as well consider it done. We can make that pleasant assumption because of the film’s third act of leveling: conflating history as Forrest understands it (through never-ending snatches of TV images and pop songs) with the way the audience is supposed to understand it (ditto).

Hence the marvelous buoyancy that Americans seem to enjoy as they float away from Forrest Gump, like star-spangled helium balloons. War, racism, child abuse, poverty, political murder, death by AIDS – we drift through them all, says the movie, at no cost beyond a passing tear and a quiet admission, “That’s all I’ve got to say about that.” We drift, because like Forrest, America is simple and good.

An outside observer might think differently.

To understand how, let’s begin by determining the genre of Forrest Gump. It must belong to a genre; as the world knows, that’s one of the marks of an American film.

The genre that first comes to mind is the musical. Like many recent films that review past decades of American history–Born on the Fourth of July, for example, or Malcolm XForrest Gump is a dizzy whirl of cardigans and plaid skirts, tie-dyes and bell-bottoms, neon disco outfits and neo-preppy ensembles, all scored to a Hit Parade soundtrack. It’s very much like the fashion shows that used to wrap up musicals in the thirties and forties, stretched but to two and a half hours. But if it’s indeed a grandchild of the musical, Forrest Gump must have other ancestors as well. Another of its forebears, I think, is the western.

The western often resolves into a last-reel showdown, in which a lone good guy must confront and kill an equally solitary villain. This method of resolution has become so fundamental to our way of thinking that it has carried over into other, evolving genres. In the splatter movies that became popular in the seventies and early eighties, as Carol Clover remarked in her book Men, Women and Chain Saws, a lone survivor (whom Clover calls the Final Girl) does battle at the end with the ultimate embodiment of evil. This villain may have acted alone throughout the film, as does Freddy Krueger (or the Silence of the Lambs psycho, if you prefer movies that are socially acceptable). Or, the villain may be the Final Bad Guy – the leader of a whole gang of monsters who must be killed off one by one in ascending order of importance.

This structure is also visible within the action movies of the eighties and nineties. To take a couple of current examples: In Clear and Present Danger (an uninvolving movie based on an unreadable novel), Harrison Ford and his surrogates kill Colombian drug lords by the fistful, till the most dangerous of them all takes a bullet five minutes before the closing credits. In True Lies – see below – Arnold Schwarzenegger goes through a few regiments of Arabs, until he’s allowed to vaporize Art Malik.

In the same way, Forrest Gump is structured as a series of killings, leading up to the big one. With metronomic regularity, the movie ticks off the deaths of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and John Lennon (with near misses for George Wallace, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan). And the culmination of the series? It’s Jenny (Robin Wright), the woman Forrest loves. By the logic of the genre, that would make her a likely candidate to be Forrest Gump’s ultimate embodiment of evil.

Well, let’s see. Forrest Gump does a remarkably good job of maintaining a blissed-out tone – except for one scene, in which it suddenly becomes harsh and nasty. The occasion: a huge antiwar rally in Washington. The villains: one motormouthed Black Panther and one S.D.S. leader from Berkeley, who slaps Jenny around. If you think of Jenny as a dramatic character, then she’s the victim of S.D.S. abuse and should be disassociated from it. But if you think of her as an allegorical figure – which is more like it – then the abuse becomes one of her attributes, part of her essence. In fact, as she functions in Forrest Gump, Jenny is little more than a walking, talking sponge of bad karma. Get rid of her, and you squeeze all the sourness out of America which, as the filmmakers see it, means drugs, casual sex, late-night despair and political protest.

I doubt Americans are supposed to think about the evacuation of Jenny; they’re just supposed to feel better for it. But to an outsider, this resolution might alter the meaning of Forrest himself, considered as an allegorical figure. If he represents America, then America is not so amiable an idiot as we’d like to think. It (he) is an idiot who keeps himself pure by bullying others: beating up anyone who touches the object of his love, while making the love object feel bad for wanting what Forrest himself won’t give.

It’s remarkable how Forrest’s innocence keeps exploding into violence; how he feels that sex must be performed carefully (since it’s basically grotesque and tawdry); how he can find his ideal only in someone who is thoroughly unworthy and must he made to suffer, again and again. I believe this Forrest, this America, will be recognizable to foreign audiences. It’s not much different from the America they will recognize in True Lies.