Recent movies suggest military men are rising again in public favor THE FORTUNE OF SOLDIERS

August 28, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The most electrifying moment in any American movie this summer comes halfway through "Forrest Gump," when Private Gump, who's just won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam, is visiting his beloved Jenny at the headquarters of one of the huge Washington peace marches. Having no politics, he sees no contradiction in this and no irony. In his goofy green suit and goofy plain mind, Forrest is slow to pick up that the peace marchers are decamping. He clings to Jenny even when her boyfriend, a high muckety-muck in the peace movement, orders her to get going.

When she balks, the peacenik smashes her in the face.

It's shocking because it so utterly reverses our expectations. In so many films, peace demonstrators have been portrayed as custodians of America's soul, brave and courageous young people who halted the evil war in Vietnam, where our soldiers were busy massacring peasants. Now here's director Robert Zemeckis, in a movie about a simpleton, pointing out a complexity -- that the people who protested the war weren't axiomatic saints or martyrs; they were just human beings, as prone to weakness and ugliness as any of us.

It may be an example of the aggressive centrism of "Forrest Gump" that it refuses to apotheosize the crusade that had so much to do with the end of the Vietnam war, just as it refuses to condemn the soldiers. On the other hand, it may be part of a subtle change dating from the Persian Gulf war -- which the movies, those barometers of social nuance, are sometimes absurdly sensitive to, while remaining utterly unself-conscious of what they're doing.

What is clear is that, regardless of explicit politics, "Forrest Gump" is a movie that invests its compassion in the men who fought the war, not the people who tried to stop it. One of the film's most harrowing passages -- its only stint of true dramatic storytelling -- follows Forrest and his platoon on several patrols in Vietnam, introduces us to the men as characters, not as caricatures, and lets us witness the agony of their deaths and experience the rage and fury at their loss. It never says: The war in Vietnam was a bad thing and all those who fought it were war criminals. It says: Fighting wars is very hard on young men, and when they die it is a tragedy.

The crucial character isn't really Forrest at all: He's too dim a lump of clay. Rather, it's Gary Sinese's Lieutenant Dan, Forrest's platoon leader. Contrast him with, say, "El Tee," the callow lieutenant in "Platoon," to get an indication at how these attitudes have changed.

In "Platoon," the "El Tee" (a disrespectful distillation of the abbreviation "Lt.") is a figurehead, out of his depth, a dangerous boy. In base camp, he wanders about in his Ohio State sweat shirt trying to bond with the boys, who always reject him. The true power in the platoon belongs to Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger), who expresses his contempt for the young officer at every turn. At one point, so marginalized has the officer become, El Tee even says he doesn't care about the platoon anymore. In the end, he's so utterly irrelevant that even his death has no dramatic weight; he perishes wordlessly offscreen. El Tee stands for the corruption of the military ideal of the young leader: He's callow, worthless and overmatched, and his position is a display of an institution that has lost its control as well as its honor.

Sinese's Lieutenant Dan, on the other hand, is a professional soldier, as well as being the only real character in the movie (and the best performance, but don't tell Hanks). He runs his platoon, he's compassionate toward his men, he's committed to the mission. It is his darkest tragedy that in honorable pursuit of his objectives, he loses his legs and sinks into angry bitterness. Yet in "Forrest Gump," his is the most redemptive journey; he finds a way back from his anger. The movie's most poignant image, for my money, is the final shot of him on his new legs in his new suit, aware that in his eyes, he's a whole man again, even as we've known that, legs or no, he was always whole.

Making a comeback

Take a bow, little guy. The G.I. has come marching back. You can see it cropping up in a couple of other films this summer, as if it's a boomlet on the way toward being a boom. For example, it's clearly the one impulse behind the dreadful Pauly Shore thing, "In the Army Now."

Not to be confused with an actual motion picture, "In the Army Now" repeats the pattern of many service comedies, following a complete goof-up through basic training and then into battle. But even the subversive antics of Shore, an MTV icon whose primary gift is his ability to enrage parents and other authority figures, can't obscure the fundamentally conservative nature of this film.

It actually harks back to an old Midwestern saying about the Army, which became the title of an ironic World War II novel: "It'll do him," they used to say, "a world of good."

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