Forrest Gump doesn’t know what to do with the 1970s. To be fair, neither do historians, but it’s especially obvious in a movie that functions as a kind of “greatest hits” for the Boomer generation’s historical experience. In the 1950s, we get Elvis and civil rights; the 1960s, Vietnam and angry hippies. And then what?
How about a montage! At some point in the mid-1970s, after enduring a series of personal tragedies, Gump decides to get up off his porch and run. We then get a sequence where he jogs back and forth across the United States for years, attaining folk hero status and a cult following despite giving no explanation for his seemingly endless run.
Why is Forrest running? Why do so many Americans follow him? The film echoes a central Boomer narrative, stated most clearly in Tom Wolfe’s 1976 article “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening”: that the cataclysm of the 1960s had left Americans feeling lost, unable to come to terms with the traumatic events that had shaped their youth. According to Wolfe, when the Boomers entered their thirties they retreated inward, searching for answers not in collective action but in personal transformation. They discovered yoga, meditation, vegetarianism, and other forms of self-improvement. Outdoor jogging became a national phenomenon. Both Tom Wolfe and Forrest Gump try to portray this search for meaning as good-natured, if a bit goofy; but this belies the conservatism at the heart of the Boomer retreat.
Forrest tells us, reflecting upon his cross-country run years later, “I’d think a lot about Mama and Bubba and Lieutenant Dan. But most of all, I thought about Jenny. I thought about her a lot.” Troubled by memories of Mama (the older generation), Bubba (racism and civil rights), and Lieutenant Dan (the Vietnam War), Gump focuses instead on an image of heterosexual monogamy as a path to the future.
The conservatism of Gump’s search becomes even clearer when he finally stops running and explains to his followers, “I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.” It’s an apologia for the Boomer generation’s retreat from the communitarian ideals of the 1960s: we tried, we failed, we got tired and went home. Monument Valley, the cinematic icon of the West, is in the background, as if to say Gump’s return home is an acknowledgement there are no more frontiers.
The film ends with Gump loading his son onto the same school bus he rode as a child, returning us to a safe nostalgic image of the 1950s, before Vietnam and civil rights and women’s lib tore us all apart. Ronald Reagan is president. It’s morning again in America. After years of running, we’re finally back where we started.