During his wait at a bus stop, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) starts telling his life story to strangers on his bench sitting next to him. The story begins with the leg braces he had to wear as a child, which resulted in him being bullied by children. He lives with his mother (Sally Field), who tells him that "stupid is as stupid does". Forrest teaches one of their guests, a young Elvis Presley, a hip-swinging dance. At school, Forrest meets Jenny (Robin Wright), with whom he immediately falls in love, and they become best friends. Forrest discovers that he can run very fast which, despite his below-average intelligence, earns him a scholarship to the University of Alabama from Bear Bryant. While in college, he witnesses George Wallace's Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, is named an All-American football player, and meets President John F. Kennedy.
After graduating, Forrest enlists in the United States Army, where he becomes friends with Benjamin Buford "Bubba" Blue (Mykelti Williamson), and they agree to go into the shrimping business together. They are sent to Vietnam, and when their platoon is ambushed, Forrest saves many of the men in his platoon, including platoon leader 2nd Lt. Dan Taylor (Gary Sinise), but Bubba is killed. Forrest himself is injured and receives the Medal of Honor from President Lyndon B. Johnson. While recovering from his injuries Forrest meets Dan Taylor again. Now an amputee, he is furious at Forrest for leaving him a "cripple" and cheating him out of his destiny to die in battle like his ancestors. In Washington, Forrest is swept up in an anti-war rally at the National Mall and is reunited with Jenny, who is now part of the hippie counterculture movement. They spend the night walking around the capital, but she leaves with her abusive boyfriend the following day.
Forrest discovers an aptitude for ping pong and begins playing for the U.S. Army team, eventually competing against Chinese teams on a goodwill tour. He goes to the White House again and meets President Richard Nixon who provides him a room at the Watergate hotel, where Forrest inadvertently helps expose the Watergate scandal. For his numerous accomplishments, Forrest is invited onto The Dick Cavett Show. He again encounters Dan Taylor, now an embittered drunk living on welfare. Dan is scornful of Forrest's plans to enter the shrimping business and mockingly promises to be Forrest's first mate if he ever succeeds.
Using money from a ping pong endorsement, Forrest buys a shrimping boat, fulfilling his wartime promise to Bubba. Dan keeps his own promise and joins Forrest as first mate. They initially have little luck; but, after Hurricane Carmen destroys every other shrimping boat in the region, the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company becomes a huge success. Having had an epiphany during the hurricane, Dan finally thanks Forrest for saving his life. Forrest then returns home to care for his ailing mother, who dies soon afterwards. Forrest leaves the company in the hands of Dan, who invests their wealth in shares of Apple, making them both millionaires.
Jenny returns to visit Forrest and stays with him. Forrest asks her to marry him, but she declines and slips away early one morning. Distraught, Forrest decides to go for a run, which turns into a three-year coast-to-coast marathon. Forrest becomes a celebrity and attracts followers. One day he stops suddenly and returns home. He receives a letter from Jenny asking to meet, which brings him to the bus stop where he began telling his story. Once he and Jenny are reunited, Forrest discovers they have a young son, also named Forrest (Haley Joel Osment). Jenny reveals that she is suffering from an unknown virus. She proposes to him and he accepts. They return to Alabama with Forrest Jr. and marry, but Jenny dies soon after. Forrest waits with Forrest Jr. for the bus to pick him up for his first day of school. As the bus drives away, Forrest sits on the same tree stump where his mother sat on his first day of school and watches his feather bookmark float off in the wind.
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