The Truman Show (1998) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : It’s a good life

In one science magazine I used to read during my high school years, one of my favorites was the section on the science in SF movies(the magazine is still published monthly; whenever I come across them at the campus book store, it always takes me back to when I was less jaded and more anti-social). It answered my doubt on the climax sequence in “Total Recall”(1990), and it pointed out that there were several implausible aspects in the premise of “Jurassic Park”(1993). In case of the movies like “Armageddon”(1998) and “Independence Day”(1996), well, it did not require a lot of scientific knowledge to discern that they were brainless.

While revisiting Peter Weir’s smart comedy/drama “The Truman Show”(1998), several questions on its premise came back on me as before. How could they build such a huge construction like that, and “the normal world” inside it? How can they control the weather inside it?(it is sort of amazing to see that they have the lighting equipment as bright as the sun itself) How do the actors, who must have been playing their characters for years, and the crew work in this world? Do they have the other life outside the studio? And is it possible that a plain voyeuristic show about one ordinary guy‘s daily life can become one of the most popular TV soap dramas on the Earth? Is there really enough profitability in creating and maintaining it?

The movie could provoke more questions if it were a realistic drama, but the movie is essentially a comic fable on how far we can go with the media technology available to us. Andrew Niccol’s clever screenplay wisely sidesteps some of holes inherent in its premise with lots of humor and intelligence, and, when I checked its running time, I discovered almost half of the film is devoted to its fun with its hidden premise. Though this is more amusing to observe during the second watching, I agree with Roger Ebert that it is best for you to discover its premise for yourself without any information.

However, thanks to its popularity, most of us know well about its big secret which was misguidingly disclosed in the trailer when the movie came out in 1998. Yes, Truman Burbank(Jim Carrey), your average good neighbour, is living in the world completely artificial from the beginning to the end. He seems to be content with this sunny(and well-lit) environment. Every morning, he always greets his neighbours across the road when he leaves for work with his famous catch phrase(“Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night!”). At the town square, he always encounters the same people just before he enters into the local insurance company building. He is not particularly unhappy about his mediocre desk job, and, when the day is over, he comes back to his sweet home(equipped with green lawn and white picket fence, of course), and there is his cheery wife Meryl(Laura Linney) who talks and smiles like the latest version of Stepford wife programmed with commercials.

This has been a good life to Truman, but we come to see that his discontent has been silently growing while he smiles like the others in the town do. He knows there is the world beyond his hometown Seahaven, a nice and comfortable island town located between the big ocean and the main land. He has been yearning for getting out of the town, but he has been blocked by several reasons including his fear of water caused by one unfortunate incident in his childhood. And he still misses Laruen(Natascha McElhone), or Sylvia as she revealed to him during their last moment, who was suddenly whisked away from him for some reason when their relationship was about to grow.

The opening sequence of the movie is deceptive. We are presented with the series of behind-the-scene interviews with the producer and the main performers of the TV show. While Truman, who appears as himself in the show according to the credit, is not introduced, Christof(Ed Harris), the producer of this show, succinctly summarizes its concept: “…. there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.”

He does not exaggerate it, because Truman has been the hero of the ultimate reality TV show throughout his whole life. He was broadcast even when he was a fetus in the womb. After he was legally adapted by the corporation(he was the first case), every moment of his life in Seahaven has been shown to the billions of viewers around the world, who are eager to see what will happen in the next chapter of his life while wondering how his story will eventually end. Some of them are so obsessed with the show that we see one viewer even watching it in the bathtub.

The show has been continued for nearly 30 years, and its popularity has been steady along with the high rating. Most of viewers know that it is Christof who pulls the strings behind the show, but that is okay for them; Truman is real, so his life is real in spite of being constantly controlled and manipulated. In other words, they cannot resist the voyeuristic fun provided by the show; it is always interesting to us to observe the other’s private life, isn’t it?

The main attraction of the show is that Truman does not know he is a TV star, and that fact has been kept from him for all his life. Although he has the desire for the adventure outside the town, he was raised and educated to be a conformist to the closed system he inhabits in. One of the major sources of comedy in the film is how the actors and crew try to keep Truman in Seahaven and hide the truth from him. My personal favorite is a brief moment from his school days comparable to other funny school lesson scene in “Pleasantville”(1998): “I want to be an explorer, like the Great Magellan.” – “ Oh, you’re too late! There’s nothing left to explore!”

But, as we have seen in the other movies about the closed system, the cracks are bound to surface, so Truman becomes enlightened like the people of Pleasantville. He has never felt wrong about following his daily routine every day, but, once he comes across one small weird incident on one fine day, he begins to perceive the other odd things in his life. His car radio captures a suspicious radio communication. He finds that one building, the one he has taken for granted, is not what it seems to be on the outside. When he actively breaks his usual behavioral pattern during the exciting sequence accompanied with Phillip Glass’ pulsating score from “Powaqqatsi”(1988), everything in his life suddenly looks and feels quite different to him. He senses that some kind of order he has never noticed before is revolving around him, and now he wants to know why.

The movie reveals its serious side beneath its comic surface around this point, and Jim Carrey also becomes more serious than usual. For him, “The Truman Show” was a major turning point in his career where the audiences discovered the quality of everyman beneath his elastic comic persona. It is not so surprising that some mentioned Jack Lemmon when they talked about his attempts with drama performances; as shown in this film and “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”(2004), he is capable of dialing down his rambunctious manic side if it is required, and he is very good at that.

Thanks to Carrey’s well-balanced performance, Truman comes to us a likable ordinary guy we can easily identify with. He looks pleasant in a little too awkward and exaggerated way at first, but we understand that is how he is shaped in this fake world where everyone pretends to look happy and greets each other with smiling faces which feel as increasingly creepy as the pod people. In fact, there is even the scene influenced by “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”(1956), in which everyone in the town gathers in group to search for Truman later in the story.

Carrey also lenders pathos and poignancy to Truman’s supposedly private moments, such as when he tries to reconstruct Lauren’s face with the photos cut from fashion magazines. Everything around him is phony, and his life has been manipulated regardless of his will, but what he feels is real – that is why we feel sorry for him like Sylvia, who came to really like him and care about him unlike others after their eyes were met.

Our lives are certainly not TV show, but the movie implies that, like Truman, we also follow our own mundane routine without any question until we happen to step out of it. I noticed that the viewers of the Truman Show, including Sylvia who has been protesting against the show since she was fired and sent back to the world outside, seem to be stuck in their own spaces isolated from the real world, which is never shown in the film. Come to think of it, I have spent more than 10 years of my life at the campus, and this wide space has frequently showed me new things from here and there, mainly because my minimalistic life has been revolving around few spots – the department building, the library, the dormitory, the gym, and, occasionally, the local theater near the campus. To be frank with you, though I guess it is only a side effect we have in the era of high definition, I sometimes look at the sky wondering whether it is special effect or not(I learned later that the psychiatrists have already reported and termed that kind of delusion “The Truman Show Delusion”, but don’t worry – my case is just a brief amusing thought).

Several reviewers said that the movie never fully presents how sinisterly Truman’s world works(I heard Niccol’s first draft was darker while intended as a thriller), but, as the creator/father of this world who presides over the show at the control station above the sky, Ed Harris subtly suggests the sinisterness behind Christof and his show while never looking like a villain on TV screen. Christof casually talks about his show in his exclusive TV interview, but he never utters any words revealing its true nature. When Sylvia protests to him on the phone in the middle of the interview, he justifies his show with the plausible argument that he gives Truman the world better than the one outside. Christof may care about Truman as Big Daddy(Do I have to tell you what his name signifies?), but the show always the first priority to him, and he is willing to continue it by any means necessary, though the rating is never higher than before when Truman rebels against his domination.

One interesting but unexplored aspect of the show is Truman’s night time with his wife in their bedroom, which has been always hidden from the viewers. I have no clear idea about what they do, but it seems they do have a sex life. We have heard about good actors are willing to do anything for their performances, but can they even give up their body rights for the perfect acting as a real spouse? Judging from Laura Linney’s performance which looks more relatively neurotic than others’, I wonder whether the show has taken a lots of emotional toll on Meryl, who has to do the job probably far harder than “Last Tango in Paris”(1972). Having a sex with her co-actor can be accepted as a part of the acting, but now she is scheduled to get pregnant just for keeping Truman in Seahaven. I am really curious about what conversation she and Christof had during the salary negotiation meeting before she agreed to his plan.

Along with “The Truman Show”, Andrew Niccol made a career breakthrough thanks to another wonderful SF movie of my high school years, “Gatacca”(1997). As a biology major, I cannot help but giggle a little at several technologies depicted in the film while watching it, but the movie is effective none the less as a cautionary dystopian story with the powerful human moments breathing inside its cold future world. It suggests that the humanity may overcome the technology even when it comes to oppress the human society, and so does “The Truman Show”. During the final confrontation, Christof says, as the “God“ who have watched everything in Truman’s life through the technology at his hand, he knows Truman better than Truman himself, but Truman retorts: “You never had a camera in my head!”

More than 10 years have passed since these two films came out, and some aspects in their respective stories become real. With the rapid advance in Biotechnology, we can easily analyze the genomic information of an individual, and my mind immediately went back to “Gattaca” when I heard about the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which bans the discrimination based on genetic information in health insurance and employment. In case of “The Truman Show”, we saw the huge rise of the reality shows on TV not so long after its theatrical release, though our reality is closer to “Edtv”(1999), another movie with a similar but different premise. The people do not mind about showing themselves on TV, and others go along with that. Truman would be amazed by them.

Truman finally becomes a ‘true man’ in the end, but the technology will prevail. Considering what the last shot of the movie suggests, I think they will try another big project to attract ever-present TV viewers. I remember one article suggesting an outrageous twist for the alternative ending. Truman finally meets Sylvia, and they start their happy life, but it turns out that this ending is just the beginning of the second season of The Truman Show: this time, the whole earth is the studio. It sounds quite preposterous, but who knows? The viewers will gladly watch it again, anyway.

“What else is on?” – “Yeah, let’s see what else is on” – “Where is the TV guide?”

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1 Response to The Truman Show (1998) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : It’s a good life

  1. Michael says:

    Thank you for your review. I was 12 or 13 when I watched this movie. Frankly saying, after “Ace Ventura”, “Dumb & Dumber” and “The Cable Guy”, that I already had enjoyed by that time, this movie disappointed me – my infant mind did not had a capability to perceive the message, as it was waiting for some kind of comedy. So, the time went by, and by now “The Truman Show” is among the best movies I have ever seen. Truman is so dear to me, that I always let fall a tear, when watching the scene, where he succeeds in escaping from Seaheaven by yacht. I’m, for sure, a sensitive man.
    I apologize for my, may be awkward, English. I’m from Russia, and hardly speak this language. I’m more successful in reading 🙂

    SC: Your English is fine on the whole. Thanks for your comment.

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