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The movie starts with Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) telling his life story to strangers at a bus stop. He starts with telling about the braces he wore on his legs as a child, which caused other children to bully him. At school, Forrest met Jenny (Robin Wright), an abused girl who became his lifelong friend. Her advice to Forrest was to "run" whenever he got into trouble. Forrest ran constantly, eventually allowing him to discard his leg braces and "run like the wind blows."
Despite having below average intelligence, Forrest earned a scholarship to the University of Alabama after Bear Bryant spotted Forrest running away from bullies. While in college, he witnessed George Wallace's infamous Stand in the Schoolhouse Door and was named to the All-American football team, who met with President John F. Kennedy.
After graduating, Forrest enlisted in the Army and was sent to Vietnam, where he became friends with Benjamin Buford "Bubba" Blue (Mykelti Williamson), a man whose lifelong dream was to buy a shrimping boat. When the platoon was ambushed, Forrest's "running" saved many of the men in his unit as Forrest ran repeatedly into the firefight and carried them to safety. Bubba died, while the platoon's commanding officer, Lt. Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise), lost both legs. Forrest himself was injured and awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
While recovering from his injuries, Forrest discovered an aptitude for ping pong. He began playing for the U.S. Army team, eventually competing against Chinese teams on a goodwill tour. He went to the White House for a third time to meet President Richard Nixon who provided him a room at the Watergate hotel, where Forrest, reporting what he thought was a power outage, inadvertently exposed the Watergate scandal.
Because of his many accomplishments, Forrest was invited to appear on the Dick Cavett Show. While in New York for the filming, he again met Lt. Dan, now an embittered drunk and living on welfare. Lt. Dan was scornful of Forrest's plans to enter the shrimping business and jokingly promised to be Forrest's first mate if he ever succeeded.
Using money from his ping-pong career, Forrest bought a shrimping boat, fulfilling his wartime promise to Bubba. Lt. Dan kept his earlier promise and joined him as first mate. They initially had little luck, but after Hurricane Carmen swept away the rest of their competition, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company became a huge success. At the same time, Forrest returned home to care for his dying mother. Forrest left the company in the hands of Lt. Dan, who invested their wealth in shares from Apple. The two men became extremely wealthy.
Jenny returned to visit Forrest at his old home, eventually staying for an undetermined time. One day after dinner, Forrest asked her to marry him, and after she declined, he left the house. Later, Jenny climbed into Forest's room and they slept together, but she left in a cab the following morning. Distraught, Forrest decided to go for a long run. Over the next three years, he ran coast to coast several times, gathering a group of followers. In the end, as suddenly as he had begun, he ran home to Alabama to find a letter from Jenny.
Forrest says that Jenny's letter invited him to come and see her, which is why he was waiting for the bus. An elderly woman who has been listening to his story tells him that Jenny's address is only a few blocks away, and he runs to meet her. Once they are reunited, he discovers they have a young son, also named Forrest (Haley Joel Osment). Jenny tells him that she is suffering from an unknown virus. She proposes to him and he accepts. They return to Alabama with their son and marry, but Jenny dies soon after.
On his son's first day of school, Forrest sits with his son at the bus stop. As the bus picks Forrest Jr. up and drives away, Forrest sits on the same tree stump where his own mother sat on Forrest's first day of school, the day he met Jenny.