Even though history is sometimes looked down on as a boring High School subject, sometimes it can be used as a creative object in which a movie’s plot can connect with the audience. When major historic events are integrated into a film, it gives the plot an anchor to a real moment in time that people can relate to. In being able to relate to the audience’s experience and knowledge, the film suddenly becomes somewhat relatable. An individual will then get a kick out of seeing the main character’s influence on the event, or even seeing how an alternate history might have been created had things gone differently. This week’s movies look at two sides of cinematic integration of history. Don’t worry, there’s not going to be a history quiz next week.
Length: 142 minutes / 2.37 hours
Forrest Gump was hardly the first Best Picture to use history to its advantage. Many previous winners have used famous historic events as their backdrop (see Gone with the Wind), or have merely taken the audience through a history lesson of about 30 years (see Cavalcade (1933)), or even one man’s stamp on history itself (see Patton). However, none of these previous Oscar winners has infused history into their plot quite like Forrest Gump has. In order to not change how history has happened, this film takes one person and essentially makes him a footnote in all the notable events of the late 20th century.
While the start of Forrest Gump’s (Tom Hanks) simple life is hardly noteworthy (historically speaking), we must start this examination at the point where Forrest joins the army. Oh, but wait! There’s a war going on . . . the Vietnam War. Not soon after Gump has finished basic training is he sent to the front lines to fight with his friends, Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise) and Bubba Blue (Mykelti Williamson). Of course, the one significant point of Forrest’s upbringing is that he’s an excellent runner, which ends up winning him some medals. As such, he gets to meet the president. Actually, he gets to meet the president a lot, although the president changes a few times. As Gump lives his life, he ends up inadvertently creating the iconic smiley faces of the 1970’s, defeatist bumper stickers, and many more crazes and fads well known to their respective generations. And yet, through all the fame, Forrest still dreams about the girl next door, Jenny (Robin Wright), who is up to her own historical experiences, albeit of a less savory nature. The bit parts and nods to many popular culture events and icons really make this movie one to see.
Length: 162 minutes / 2.7 hours
For about 20 years, Watchmen has stood as a pillar of the graphic novel world, and for those 20 years, it had gone without a movie adaptation. The masterpiece of literature created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons went un-produced for so long due to many issues. This was partly due to Moore’s ideologies in regards to his work (after all, look how The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen turned out) and partly due to the insurmountable task of being able to represent Watchmen on film. That being said, the Watchmen movie came pretty darn close to representing the literary work it was based on. And while the plot of the movie tends to drift from the graphic novel toward the end of the film, the audience ultimately ends up at the same place: questioning the salvation of many over the sacrifice of the few. This is just one of the moral dilemmas brought up in Watchmen, others of which include the use of intelligence to better society (read: “With great power comes great responsibility”), ends justifying the means, and standing up for what is right, even if doing so is wrong.
Watchmen does a good job of showing how history would be different if superheroes actually existed. Of course, these superheroes are mostly just normal people with a penchant for violence, and only one of them truly possesses any real “superpowers”. And yet, if the Vietnam War had been won sooner or if President Kennedy’s assassination was deliberate, this film examines the alternate history that would inevitably have been created. Watchmen was masterfully shot to be as close to a frame-for-frame representation of the source material as possible, but some changes like less smoking and non-canon violence (that becomes much too graphic) might be too much for purists to bear. Still, the pacing of Watchmen is excellent, leaving an audience three hours later with something to think about. A historical “what if?”
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 history lessons