The Truman Show (1998) – PG, Comedic Drama

Director:  Peter Weir

Writer:  Andrew Niccol

Starring:  Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney

Anyone can relate to the experience of questioning reality and the sincerity of others.  Pioneering the idea of reality television before such a thing existed, this speculative film tells the story of Truman Burbank, a man whose life is broadcast on live television twenty-four hours a day, all without his knowledge.

He lives on a peaceful suburban island named Seahaven, enclosed within a giant dome whose interiors are made to look like the sky.  Everyone he knows is an actor, from his coworkers to his mother and from his best friend to his wife.   He was “adopted by a corporation”, which somehow is legal.  Corporate-sponsored imprisonment and exploitation, too.  All of this is legal.  Somehow.  It is not realistic, but the entire plot is a game of “what if”, and within the rules of its own making, it succeeds in supplying plausible answers, for the most part.

The show’s premise, as you might have guessed, requires an enormous production budget, which is funded by blatant product placement.  Everything on the show is for sale.  Sometimes, the actors will make a point of describing a particular product, which means Truman is living in a world of live-action advertisements.  It’s about as creepy as you would expect.

Donning a pair of crazy red shorts as a coping mechanism, Truman wants to leave the idyllic suburban island he calls home, but in order to continue the controlled atmosphere of the show, everyone else is determined to convince him to stay.  The scripted “death” of his father in a storm at sea has given him a conditioned fear of water, and this phobia stops him from getting very far.  Despite odd occurrences—such as a stage light falling from the “sky” and a pensive moment triggering personal raincloud—for most of his life Truman never suspects the truth.  Then things begin to go awry when the actor who played his father sneaks back onto the set.  A couple of actors swoop in to whisk him away onto a bus, but not before Truman sees him.  His mother tries to convince him that he was only imagining things.  She even sounds like she believes it herself.  When the fakeness of Truman’s world is obvious, it’s to comedic effect, but at times like these, when the characters make it seem so natural, that’s when it gets disturbing.

Encouraging self-doubt and predictability, his family has always frowned on attempts to push boundaries: “You’ve gotta learn your limitations, Truman.”  In some ways, their techniques have worked; Truman is a pleasant man but by nature he’s more timid than daring.  Even so, he is not content with the status quo.  A flashback explains why he wants to find a way off the island.

No, not that island.

In the flashback, Truman notices a pretty girl one day in high school.  He grins at her, strokes the fluffy plume of his hat, and points at her, as if to say “this feather I’m stroking is symbolic of you.”  This creepy strategy is somehow successful in making her smile in a “I’m not creeped out by that” manner.  Anyway, the point of the scene is that he’s more interested in an uninvolved extra than the designated love interest who falls into
his arms.

Some other actors whisk away the extra because she’s not supposed to interact with him, but later, he comes across her again.  During a brief conversation he learns her name is Lauren, and they sneak off together.

Lauren:  They don’t want me talking to you.

Truman:  Then don’t talk.

That’s all the warning he gives before diving in for her face, and it’s a good thing she wanted it, because that was very abrupt.  There was no delicate pause to enhance a gradual build of romantic tension.  Nope.  Spout line and go.  He hasn’t even spoken to this girl before tonight and all of a sudden kissy time.  Maybe because he’s supposed to be a hormonal teenager…?  He doesn’t even show any trepidation, though.  Somehow this bold behavior does not fit the character of a dweeby awkward guy who hates to gamble and is afraid of his neighbor’s dog.  His preference for Lauren over the intended love interest chick almost seems like a jibe at the meet cute device, or it would, if it weren’t for the arbitrary nature of this relationship as well.  He has to fall in love with her for plot reasons, to spark his interest in escaping.  End of digression.

Time for the forbidden lovers to be separated for drama.  Another actor, a man whom Lauren has never seen before but claims to be her father, drives up in a car, grabs her and takes her away “to Fiji”, but not before she confesses to Truman that her real name is Sylvia and everything in his life is fake.  He doesn’t understand what she’s talking about.  Regardless, the memory sticks with him.

Now we’re in Truman’s car as he drives to work in the current timeline, and he accidentally tunes car radio to the frequency reporting his movements to the actors’ earpieces.  Once they realize the problem, everyone changes frequency, but the strange occurrence is enough for Truman to… walk around and wonder what happened, set to music.  You as the audience have to fill in the gaps and contemplate what he may be thinking.  Otherwise the thinking scene comes off as nothing but uneventful and a tad silly.

But then something happens.  Trying to enter a (fake) elevator, he stumbles upon a break room for the actors.  A pair of men push him out and insist it’s nothing; they’re just doing some remodeling—some very strange remodeling.  Truman doesn’t believe it, because he’s a smart protagonist, and in protest, he… he flings his briefcase at a random guy on a ladder?

No, really, what was that about?

The happy music continues like that didn’t happen because you should be focusing on Truman being on the verge of a revelation, not Truman assaulting a poor man on a ladder.  What would you call this kind of music?  Inspirational?  Adventurous?  Ebullient?  It’s all excited with itself like Truman has accomplished something.  The only relevant thing he has accomplished so far is that he has begun to figure out there’s something fishy going on.  Considering Truman’s situation, it would be more fitting if it were mysterious and bewildered as he struggles to understand these events and eyes the people around him with suspicion and perhaps questions his own sanity, but the filmmakers want you to know that Truman questioning his reality is a good thing.

Next Truman finds his friend Marlon restocking a vending machine (Is that a practical career choice?).  He has to talk to him.  His theory so far is that he’s being followed and that his father is alive.  This gets Marlon’s attention, but like a good actor he seems to react in a way you might expect if this were the real world, wondering if Truman is making this up but then speculating along with him.  Still, Marlon doesn’t want to leave work, and when he refuses to go anywhere, Truman insists by… making some Jim Carrey noise.

They converse about the issue in private and Marlon makes some comments with the subtle implication that Truman ought to stay on the island.  It’s not very effective.  Truman tells him he’s planning to leave.

Marlon must not have known what to say to that because now we jump to a scene with Truman’s mother looking at a photo album with his wife.  He sits between them looking unengaged.  After they leave, a man on television prefaces a sappy program that’s “a hymn of praise to small town life”.  Truman flips through the album again.  In their wedding photo, Meryl is crossing her fingers.

The next morning, Truman is messing with a… What is that thing?  It must not be too important, seeing as he sets it down within a few seconds.  He wants to talk to Meryl, but she insists on going to “work”.  After she departs, he follows her to the hospital (she’s a nurse) and the actors have to improvise.  They seem inexperienced and unprepared for the task.  You might think they would have come up with a wider array of contingency plans considering the unpredictability of human behavior, but Truman must have a very routine-heavy lifestyle.  On the other hand, if he repeats so many of the same patterns, why is this such a popular television show?

At the travel agency, the walls bear ridiculous posters attesting the dangers of airline flights.   The agent tells him there are no flights to Fiji available for at least a month.  Truman leaves disappointed, but he hasn’t given up on his dream just yet.  He boards a bus to Chicago.  The bus never leaves the station.

Later, Meryl finds Truman sitting in the car in their driveway.  He invites her in and points out some fishy things about the neighborhood.

Meryl:  You’re upset because you want to go to Fiji, is that it?  Okay.  Okay, go.  I think you should save for a few months, and then go!  There.   You happy now?  I’m gonna go take a shower.

He locks the doors and drives off with her.  He’s going now, and she’s coming with him.

This is bad planning on his part, but watching this scene, it’s hard to care.  He’s defying the intended storyline, being spontaneous, and doing what he wants.  It is awesome.  The best part is that he’s terrifying his creepy wife.  The worse part is… he’s terrifying his wife.  She’s a despicable woman, but with the way he’s driving, she has justification to fear for her life.  This wasn’t in the job description.  Poor lady.

Of course the show is not about to let the big star get away.  The various desperate attempts to stop him are absurd.  It’s delightful.  What’s even better is that he’s so undeterred by all of it.  There aren’t any moments where you could say “Why don’t you just _______?” because he does it.  What’s not so great is that… he’s so undeterred by all of it.  Although he knows something is up, he doesn’t know the extent of what is fake and what is real, so it’s foolish of him to be so brazen.  He’s acting psychotic.  Then again, this could be due to the fact that, you know, his entire reality is crumbling before his eyes.

It’s a fun scene.

He doesn’t get far, though.  Some men with Geiger counters chase after him (it makes sense in context) and he goes down fighting.

Back at home again, Meryl offers to find him some psychological help.  He responds by wondering why she wants to have a baby with him.  Put in an uncomfortable position, she resorts to product placement.

Meryl:  Why don’t you let me fix you some of this Mococoa drink?  All natural cocoa beans from the upper slopes of Mount Nicaragua, no artificial sweeteners!

Truman:  What the **** are you talking about?  Who are you talking to?

Meryl:  I’ve tasted other cocoas.  This is the best!

Demanding answers, he starts to have another breakdown.  She tries to defend herself with a knife, or some knife-ish thing.  Some kind of kitchen implement.  When he turns the improvised weapon against her, she shouts out for help—not with a more generic phrase like “Help me!” but with a more revealing misstep.

Then Marlon comes creeping in to the rescue.  He tries to convince Truman that if everybody were in on it, that would mean that he was in on it to, and his old friend would never lie to him.  He’s the most earnest of the show’s actors, having grown up with the main character, but he is an actor nonetheless.  With the show’s creator feeding him the reassuring lines, this is where the film starts to operate from the outside perspective of the performers and observers rather than the point of view of the main character himself.

Concluding their little talk, Marlon introduces Truman to his not-dead father.  In the show, it’s a dramatic and touching scene.  In the movie, it lampshades dramatic directing techniques.  Then Christof (the show’s creator and director) gets an interview on “Tru Talk”, which gives a bit of background information on the show.  Also, this.

Interviewer:  But how do you plan to explain his twenty-two year absence?

Christof:  Amnesia.


Interviewer:  Why do you think that Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world until now?

Christof:  We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented.

An excellent line.  No further comment.

Tru Talk is taking viewer calls, so Sylvia calls in to rant about the show’s unethical premise.  The unnerving element is that Christof’s counterargument, that he’s providing Truman with a safe, comfortable life away from the horrors of the real world, is almost convincing.  Rather than sounding like the delusions of a raving egomaniac supervillain, his assertions resemble the rhetoric used by actual people in the real world.  However, this leads to the mistake of trying to refute one of her complaints with the assertion, “He can leave at any time.”  Right.  Let’s see how that holds up.

In the meantime, Meryl will be leaving, and a new romantic interest is to be introduced.  Christof says he’s determined the first on-air conception will take place on his show.  Wait, what?  The first on-air conception?  Uh… how are you planning to manage that?  It’s implied they never “show anything” (in the words of an audience member) so… how…?

Forget it.  It doesn’t happen.  Time for an uneventful scene with sentimental music.  You’re supposed to chew over the ideological debate and what’s best for Truman.  Not to worry; things start to happen again.

At work, Truman has a creepy way of marketing life insurance.  His approach, summarized:  “You never know when you’re gonna go, so buy our product.”  He’s not gentle about it at all.  He’s Jim Carrey about it.

Anyway, just when things seem to be back to normal, somehow the camera crew loses track of the main character.  By the way, Meryl has moved out now.  It’s just skipped over.  It’s odd that they deemed the event unimportant, but then again, you already knew it would happen and nothing can top that breakdown scene, so leaving it out is not a bad choice.

Back to the topic at hand.  Truman makes one of those sleep dummies and sneaks away.  After growing suspicious, Christof discovers this by zooming in and “enhancing” recorded video.  He just says “enhance it,” an employee enacts the function, and clearer data emerges.  What is this “enhance” feature and how does it work?

Back to the topic at hand.  Again.  Marlon stops by and confirms it: he’s gone.  Christof cuts transmission.  It’s all dramatic.  Dun dun dun.  They send out a big search party to look for Truman and they can’t find him anywhere.  This is why the perspective switch was effective, you see.

If you haven’t figured out how this will end and you don’t want spoilers, you can turn back now.  Go watch it for yourself.  Or at least watch the psychotic breakdown.

If you can suspend your disbelief, the Truman Show is an interesting hypothetical scenario that works because its characters are more realistic than its concept.

Now as for the ending:

After finding him and resuming transmission, Christof whips up a storm (“He can leave at any time,” as long as he can sail through a hurricane).  The audience members cheer him on, despite that they’ve never expressed interest in helping Truman escape before and that Truman succeeding in his goal would mean the cancellation of their favorite show.  When Truman doesn’t turn back, the storm is increased to dangerous levels to stop him.  Not only are corporate adoptions legal here, so are murder attempts on live television. If Christof is so determined to have total control, why doesn’t he just write fiction?

It is not very effective.  Truman reaches the dome wall that encloses him within the set and pounds his fist against it in frustration.  However, because he is a human being, he cannot punch through a wall, not even by the power of symbolism.  Having failed to turn him back and/or kill him, Christof to confess the truth over a loudspeaker, but undeterred as ever, Truman finds a door, bows out, and leaves the only world he’s ever known.  Then the movie ends.  Right there.

If the plot is viewed as a struggle between a protagonist and an antagonist—Christof and Truman opposing one another’s goals—then this does wrap up the story, but there was never much interaction between these two characters.  For the majority of the movie, Truman is not aware of Christof’s existence, and his chief goals have less to do with a battle of wills and more to do with determining the explanation for some strange events, finding Sylvia, and figuring out what is real.  When he leaves Seahaven, he still doesn’t know what “real” life is like.

This ending is begging for a sequel.  The plot is resolved in the sense that he has escaped his cage, but it raises many more questions.  Some details don’t need to be filled in—whether or not he ever finds Sylvia, for example (the impression given is that she is just happy he’s free).  However, as mentioned, Truman does not know the extent of what is fake.  He’s walking out onto an alien planet for all he knows.  He’s only met one “real” person before, and in his televised life there were always people watching out for him.  Life in a world that doesn’t revolve around him must make for a different experience, perhaps shocking at first.  It would be interesting to see how he manages his independence and resolves the inevitable issues that arise.  At the very least, it will be a culture shock moving from Seahaven to a normal town, where people don’t abide by enforced cheeriness.  He’s never had any normal human interaction before.  He won’t have any scripted friends.  It might be lonely.  It might be frustrating.  It would cause new inner and outer conflicts.

On the other hand, he has one of the most recognizable faces in the world, and he might be stepping from quiet little Seahaven into more up-front fame than he can handle.  Who’s to say the cameras will quit rolling now that he knows they’re there?  The press will still be watching him to report on his adjustments and to anticipate another breakdown.

Event supposing his actions following the escape don’t get any media coverage, rebuilding his life from scratch will be difficult.  There’s plenty of material for another story.  This one ends with a conclusion that feels like it leaves those questions hanging.


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