When The Truman Show came out in 1998, “reality TV” as we know it today was just barely a thing. MTV had aired the first season of The Real World in 1992, the original Dutch version of Big Brother hit the airwaves in 1997. The “king” of all reality shows, Survivor, wouldn’t air until two years later, in 2000.
In short, it was a very different time for entertainment than what we’ve known for the past decade and change… which made this movie unlike anything most people had ever seen before.
Aside from the basic premise of watching a real person live out his life on TV, the other thing people had never seen before was star Jim Carrey in a serious role. Up until this point, everything he’d done had been comedy, usually skewing to the slapstick and farcical variety.
Few people seem to have thought that any of these “never before seen” things would go over exceptionally well. Both the voyeuristic television (and especially web-streaming) genre and Carrey as a dramatic actor turned out to be things that did, indeed, work pretty darn well. (We’re still suffering from one of those today…)
Truman Burbank lives a quiet, unassuming, and pretty idyllic life in the small coastal town of Seahaven. What Truman doesn’t know is that everything around him–his entire life, starting with his birth–is part of a massively popular, 24-hour-a-day, television show all orchestrated by a man named Christof. Just before his 30th birthday, the illusion starts to unravel and Truman is forced to question not just the path of his life, but the very nature of the world in which he lives.
A lot is played for laughs, but there are some pretty intense moments in the film. Apparently, nowhere near as intense as things were in early drafts, where the setting was nowhere near as Norman Rockwell perfect as Seahaven. Not all of that edge is gone in the final product–there are still a lot of very morally questionable things that go on (especially near the end of the film). Christof paints himself as a benevolent creator, but there is a lot of space to question that assertion on numerous levels.
This film should leave you at least a little uneasy, when all is said and done. But, generally, hopeful.
Fiction vs Reality
In the decades since this film came out, live streaming of anything and everything has become not just a reality, but commonplace. Twenty-four-hour broadcast schedules were once the provenance of major networks, but now anyone can do it with a cheap webcam, their phone, and the willingness to be watched all the time. “Reality” shows like Survivor and Big Brother and The Bachelor and numerous other iterations are all over the schedule.
There’s nothing quite on the scale of The Truman Show, but there are enough things that the basic concept doesn’t seem quite so outlandish now. And the shows that are out there most certainly have bred the same kind of obsessive following that we see in the fans of Truman.
Sometimes, the ethics of it all even comes up in real-world discussion. How the “reality” of these shows is manipulated by producers and editors to increase the drama. How the people who are the subject of the shows are “coached”–sometimes directly, sometimes very indirectly–to provide “good TV”.
This movie challenged the audience to consider things like that.
There’s a point in the film where the hypocritically reclusive and private Christof points out that Truman is completely free to leave at any time. Glossing over the small fact that, at that point, Truman really has no idea he’s actually trapped somewhere, let alone that everything from his job to how he met his wife has been orchestrated by someone else.
And then there’s Truman himself. He’s a nice guy. There’s really nothing terribly special about him. He is, however, a bit of a slave to his fears. Fears that were implanted into him via the staged drowning death of his father. Fears that keep him from seriously considering travelling outside of Seahaven.
Fears that he eventually overcomes when he really starts to question his life.
This is where the hope comes in.
We’re all a bit like Truman. When things are going well, we just carry on as normal, not necessarily thinking too much about any of the “big” questions (like “How will it all end?”). We go about our daily routine and maintain that level of comfort.
But then, when something unexpected happens, when our patterns are thrown in to a bit of disarray, when our comfort falters… what do we do? In most cases, if things aren’t too bad, we ignore them or make small adjustments until everything returns to normal (it usually does). In other cases, our fear gets the best of us and we run and hide… also until things return to normal. But, sometimes, the unexpected builds upon our memory of other unexpected, out of place, incongruous events from our lives and we’re forced to question our reality.
Truman, in the end, overcomes his fears, pushes past his comfort zone by miles, and, ultimately, faces off against his creator.
Through it all there is only one moment where Truman’s character truly falters, where, briefly, he’s no longer a nice guy. Rightfully, that moment terrifies everyone involved, including him. Again, he has to make a choice: who is he going to be?
That choice comes up again in the final sequence of the film. When Christof gives him the option of either leaving… or returning to his idyllic, but fake, life.
In one of the earlier drafts, Truman’s decision lead to him nearly beating Christof to death.
Thankfully, that didn’t make the final cut… because that would have made this a movie without much hope. Not for Truman and not for humanity.
No, in the final cut, Truman chooses to be his own man. And he chooses to do so with the same smile and cheer he had when we first met him.
We should all be so kind to ourselves and those who have exerted power over us.
This has always been one of my favorite movies. Along with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Majestic, it is one of my three favorite Jim Carrey movies of all time.
Everyone should give this film a watch. There are good reasons it’s regularly used in film classes. There are even better reasons a lot of the things we see in it are echoed in our modern reality shows. Everything here works. The story, the cinematography, the subtle commentary, the much more blatant commentary… I’m hard-pressed to think of a movie that does so much in so simple a way.
This is not a complex story. It is a deep one.
And that makes it something special.