The first thing we see in "Forrest Gump" is a single white feather, floating against the blue sky, drifting in the breeze as it floats over Savannah, Ga., and eventually settles at the feet of a man sitting on a bus bench.

The feather is symbolic, of course, and as the film progresses we see that the title character . . . that man on the bench . . . is an innocent who has been tossed about by the winds of change in America, spanning the turbulent decades of the '50s, '60s and '70s. Yet, through it all, he has remained ever optimistic.

Forrest, played beautifully by Tom Hanks, is slow-witted and naive, and the bulk of the film is made up of flashbacks as he casually relates his life story to a series of people who sit down beside him.

Much of Forrest's conversation begins with, "Mama says . . . ," as he relates words of wisdom that his mother (Sally Field) started feeding him when he was a child. "Life is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you're going to get," goes the homily he remembers best.

As a child in Alabama, Forrest (young Michael Humphreys) is forced to wear braces on his legs to correct his spine. He calls the clunky footwear "magic shoes." The grade-school principal is reluctant to let him attend public school, as Forrest has an IQ of just 75. "He's different," the principal says, but Mrs. Gump is determined that her son will not be "different."

Ironically, even as she tells Forrest that he's no different from anyone else, it's apparent to us that he's very different, and very special.

Forrest takes his mother's words to heart, lives completely without guile and frequently follows the advice of his on-again-off-again girlfriend — which is, simply, to run. As a result, he manages to live quite a remarkable life.

Forrest will go on to influence Elvis Presley's stage persona, become a football star, visit President Kennedy in the White House, become a Vietnam War hero, receive the Medal of Honor, meet President Johnson in the White House, become a world-champion pingpong player, go on television with John Lennon and a very young Dick Cavett, shake hands with President Nixon in the White House, become a wealthy businessman. . . .

Meanwhile, the love of his life, Jenny (Robin Wright), is more troubled. Abused by her father as a child, she seems to be in constant torment, latching on to political movements and anarchic lifestyles until she eventually figures out how to make peace with herself. Other memorable characters deeply affected by Forrest include a simple-minded shrimp boat fisherman (Mykelti Williamson) who becomes his best friend in the Army, and a sergeant (Gary Sinese) who is seriously wounded in the war.

The supporting players are all superb, with Sinese and Williamson deserving special mention. But this is Hanks' show all the way, and though it would be easy to dismiss his character as a variation on the man-child Hanks played in "Big," it is much more complex than that. As he sits straight up, slightly cocking his head to the left and getting a blank stare on his face, Hanks just lets himself become Forrest Gump.

Though he just won an Oscar for "Philadelphia," there seems little doubt that he will get another nomination for this.

The technical gimmickry — and it is quite dazzling — has been played up in the television ads, which seem to be selling the movie as a combination of "Rain Man" and the Woody Allen comedy "Zelig," which also used archival newsreel footage and computer handiwork to give the impression that the lead actor was actually standing next to a famous person.

To my mind, "Forrest Gump" seems more in spirit like "The World According to Garp," though in this case an attempt by director Robert Zemeckis ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit," the "Back to the Future" movies) and screenwriter Eric Roth ("Suspect," "Mr. Jones") to offer an overview of the turmoil of the baby-boom generation. Sometimes they go overboard, as with the incessant reminders of political assassinations — and attempted assassinations — even when they are not set up as intrinsic to the material. But more often the gimmickry is used in a witty manner and does not distract from the story.

They also tend to let the sentiment get a bit sticky, and they occasionally go for the cheap, vulgar gag when a higher road could be taken. There are also a few too many obvious '60s pop songs, as if Zemeckis couldn't bring himself to leave out any personal favorites (and as if they all haven't been used before — too many times).

But it's no exaggeration to call "Forrest Gump" a celebration of life, and it's been awhile since we've had a movie that offered so much and generally managed to deliver on all counts.

And for local audiences, there is even a moment that offers a very high compliment to southern Utah. Gump is running down the highway, glances over at the sunrise and says, "I couldn't tell where heaven stopped and the Earth began — it was so beautiful."

There are moments when that phrase could be used to describe this film, as well.

"Forrest Gump" is rated PG-13, but it is a very adult film and should probably have received an R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity and drug abuse.