An unyielding commitment to honesty in the face of the supremely obvious demands that I concede that Forrest Gump, a gargantuan box-office hit that was the highest-grossing film at the U.S. box office in 1994 and the fourth-highest-grossing film in U.S. history at the time of its release, the winner of six Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director off of 13 nominations, and a mainstay in the highest echelons on the populist IMDb Top 250, is a film that is loved very much by many people, and I take it for granted that they are wholly sincere in this love. But my goodness, I cannot imagine why.

It's a film that tries very hard to be all things to all people, and as a result fails to be anything at all. Depending on the scene, it's either a paean to traditional American values or a most smugly cynical attack on them; it spends almost as much time insulting its main character as praising his simple wisdom; it's a sodden lump of pandering Baby Boomer nostalgia that manages to offend at every turn the dignity of the radical hippie culture that the Boomers at least claim (and did so more vocally in the 1990s than the 2010s) is their proudest moment. There's a sturdy leftist argument against it that I'm sure you've all bumped into, and the film showed up on that hilariously misguided National Review list of the best conservative movies some years ago, but accusing Forrest Gump of having anything like a coherent ideological outlook is giving the film vastly more credit than it deserves.

The objection arises: must it have a coherent ideological outlook? Can it not merely be a generous crowd-pleasing romance about a colorful Southern eccentric of diminished IQ, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks, winning his second consecutive Oscar for the performance), bumbling charmingly through the world over some three decades? Well... no, it actually can't. Not when it puts the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the hippie movement right up front and center in some of its showiest moments - not when it lavishes a weird amount of attention on recounting the assassinations and attempted assassinations of U.S. presidents and other prominent political activists. Forrest Gump doesn't get to be a potted history of activism in the United States, 1963-1981, and also be just a bright-eyed, warm-hearted, and empty-headed popcorn epic. And yet this is, not so secretly, the only thing it has any desire whatsoever to be.

It's telling that it was directed by Robert Zemeckis, one of the 1980s' foremost specialists in well-heeled and gorgeously-crafted popcorn entertainment. And sure enough, if you jettison the screenplay by Eric Roth, Forrest Gump proves to perfectly confident example of Zemeckis's art: it uses what were then bleeding-edge visual effects (which have aged monstrously poorly: the scene of Lyndon B. Johnson talking looks like that Syncro-Vox technique from the '60s, where live-action mouths are married with drawn faces) in the spirit of both a tech demo and also a way of exploring what new stories can be told using those effects, it's full of lovely shots that nobody could accuse of being particularly groundbreaking; it features an Alan Silvestri score that's shamelessly unimaginative, but damned effective even so.

I do not yield nor apologise in my deep love for Zemeckis, who had as impressive of a batting average at making top-notch popular entertainment during the 1980s as any other American director (up to and including his legendary mentor, Steven Spielberg), but he's all wrong for this material. Forrest Gump is a small-focus character piece against an epic historical backdrop; prior to this, Zemeckis had made only comedies, most of them high-concept genre experiments, all of them fairly ironic, and his discomfort and unfamiliarity with straightforward, sincere drama is visible constantly (though if muscling through this is what freed him up to execute the lovely family scenes in Contact, then all's well that ends well). The director of the nostalgia-puncturing I Wanna Hold Your Hand and the fully anti-nostalgic satire on '50s mores Back to the Future was a peculiar choice for a film that was at least sometimes trying to affectionately recap midcentury American history, though it's possible that at some point, Forrest Gump was intended to be the same kind of piss-take. At any rate, Winston Groom's comic picaresque novel from which the film was adapted is entirely straightforward about satirising the sentimentality that the film often feints towards.

The result is an ungainly, ugly graft of a starry-eyed slice of Rockwellian Americana with probing, even nasty-minded humor, and it fails on both sides. We know from Back to the Future and all that Zemeckis has a drum-tight facility with comedy when the need arises, but even the most obvious jokes are treated with a hands-off awkwardness. The earnestly-narrated line "Somebody from his family had fought and died in every single American war. I guess you could say he had a lot to live up to" can't be anything in the world other than a deliberate joke, but damned if Zemeckis or Hanks is at all willing to treat it that way. At the same time, it's kind of always obvious that the film doesn't really look on Forrest as the unambiguously noble fool that the film's reputation implies: the character's broad, molasses-slow accent and the improbable naïveté he brings to every one of his encounters with world history are certainly meant to absurd if not wholly ridiculous, and for every moment where his solemn pronouncements of folk wisdom are framed in Don Burgess's widescreen cinematography (he and Zemeckis can't figure out what do with with the 2.35:1 frame, though there are some potently beautiful landscapes here and there) and cradled by Silvestri's delicate score to be some kind of gravely significant Pronouncement of an Untarnished Soul, there's one where the film adopts a smirking, "this rube sure is a moron, and only in a country of morons could he impress so many people and have so much success" attitude that would be barely indistinguishable from Being There, if Being There was broken and atonal, and if Peter Sellers was mugging hard for us to fall in love with him.

Anyway, ignoring the film-killing tonal veering between braindead satire and brainless sentimentality, Forrest Gump really just isn't very good. It suffers from a wide bunch of characters who have absolutely no depth or meaningful personality, most obviously Jenny (Robin Wright), the love of Forrest's life whose own path through America in the '60s and '70s frequently intersects with his. She's blatantly a prop, who simply pops up as different arbitrary incarnations of the American Left without ever impressing upon us that she has motivations or thoughts of any sort, and while Wright is hardly without talent or innate charisma, she never puts real effort in trying to derive a coherent characterisation from the dregs of Roth's script - it's no accident that in a film that rampaged through the Oscars, Wright didn't pick up a Best Supporting Actress nomination in a role that's perfectly tailored for one (thereby depriving the film of a record-tying 14th nomination). Sally Field appears in a few scenes to play a banal stock figure of Southern Mama-hood as Forrest's completely indeterminate mother, comprised of nothing but beaming looks and a single instance of angry mama bear resolve; Gary Sinise at least manages to do something with his clattering "sharp-tongued military officer turned acerbic war victim" role, mostly by deciding to play it for unbridled camp in the scenes where he's tricked out with a fright wig, a wheelchair, and dialogue that feels like a philosophy freshman's book report on Nietzsche.

The story is a ludicrous pile of unconvincing magical realism - a genre that Hollywood movies have been historically terrible at, and which needs less of a cool technician than Zemeckis to put over (I find myself suddenly realising for the first time, that while it would have been intolerably more mawkish, a Spielberg Forrest Gump would have been at least coherent) - never worse than in the "running across America" scene that plays mostly as a collection of all the corniest "Forrest influenced history" jokes that Roth could whip up, combined with the most unashamedly pandering moments in the film's extravagantly pandering soundtrack of Boomer touchstones (I confess to loving almost every song here, but not the way they're used - Jackson Browne's anthemic "Running on Empty" pops up in such a crassly obvious way that it would be enough to make me slightly hate the movie even if the rest of it was actually working. In fairness, the almost-suicide set to "Free Bird" works, and is one of the film's strongest scenes, in part because of the editing to the music by Arthur Schmidt, in part because Zemeckis treats it as an exercise in camera perspective instead of a Very Emotional character beat).

I've touched on the whiffiness of the once-extraordinary visual effects that let Forrest interact with real-world stock footage, but it's worth reiterating how godawful terrible all of those moments are, whether because they are offensive as shit, like the tasteless insertion of Forrest right into the heart of the standoff between George Wallace and the National Guard at the desegregation of the University of Alabama; or because they've been done very poorly, like the John Lennon cameo in which Lennon speaks with a florid scouse accent that's barely better than the deliberately shitty one Paul Rudd uses in Walk Hard.

I'd be happy as a clam to dump all of this in Roth's backyard, since the whole rest of his career has consisted of remaking Forrest Gump in different outfits, but plenty of people I like more are up to no good: Hanks turns the character in a totally reactive cartoon, and Zemeckis has the clumsy indelicacy of a sausage-fingered drunk pretty much straight down the line. It's the one live-action film in his career that I completely dislike, even if the technique is in place: the camera tentatively dances with the characters in a really elegant way that communicates across cuts and even across scenes, the shifts from slow to fast and back are handled with clockwork precision. Rick Carter's production design captures a postcard idea of the American South, inside and out, that still feels like a physical place; the Vietnam sequence, at least, has tense energy in spades. It is the best-crafted version imaginable of a modern historical epic which the director mishandles emotionally in every way possible.