Truman Burbank, in one of Jim Carrey’s finest performances, is a nice guy with a nice wife, the nice house, job, and neighbors — but it’s all been staged for Truman. He’s the center of a global reality show in which he’s the only one who doesn’t know. From birth, he’s been raised on an engineered island with hired actors and millions of hidden cameras. If you think I’ve given away the big secret, this is only the start of the movie. Truman’s world slowly unravels when he finds clues that reveal the seams. He knows something is wrong; we find he has probably known it his whole life. He must decide whether to discover his reality or stay content on his perfect island.
Also starring Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, and Natascha McElhone. Directed by Peter Weir.
Some suggestions of sex, an unethical premise, and a scene of a man nearly dying.
Why You Should See It (Some Spoilers Ahead):
The Truman Show is not subtle on the Christian riffs: the director of Truman’s life is named Kristoff, who is in control of the sun and moon, and at one point calls himself the Creator. But we never sense that Kristoff is God; we know he cares for Truman, but he’s otherwise perverse, greedy, and vengeful. I remember watching the movie with a friend who could not stop saying, “This is so messed up.” The first time I watched it, I had never stopped to think how very wrong that Truman’s life really was. The wrongness of it, I’ve found, is that we’re much like Truman, manipulated and exploited by unseen powers and men who play God, that demand us to dance for someone else’s objectifying delight.
The two major themes in the movie are not merely on-the-nose, but in our nostrils. Truman is 1) trapped by the manufactured lull of a conformist paradise and 2) prostituted for our salacious consumption. The themes are mostly played for laughs, running parallel until the final scene, when they culminate into a much more understated, melancholic message on freedom and vulnerability.
That first theme is much more existential: Truman is imprisoned in a self-indulgent bubble in which everything works out, in a world of so much sugar and sunshine that he feels there must be something more. In a sense, he’s at the highest tier of a caste system that oppresses his every choice, not by poverty but by pleasure. The point appears simple, that we are blinded by paradise until we’re enslaved — but the film goes one further when it shows that finding the something-more is not an easy path. It’s painful to leave the comfortable. It’s not romantic, and it’s also not a reversible option. I’m reminded of an exchange in The Matrix, when the vile Agent Smith remarks that a perfect fantasy program only destroyed the minds of the plugged-in humans because we need some element of risk and uncertainty to truly thrive. A life without adventure will wither. We inherently know that we must fight for something.
The movie makes a case that no one can have the wool pulled over their eyes for long. A woman who wants to set Truman free enters his life and tries to explain the truth. She’s expelled from the set and Truman is arranged to marry another woman. But Truman never forgets the first woman, their connection, her jacket. Truman is also born with a passionate urge to explore the world. This leads to more bittersweet scenes like his elementary teacher saying, “There’s nothing left to explore.” In a comi-tragic sight gag, Truman is at a travel agency and he sees a poster of an airplane struck by a lightning bolt. In probably the most cruel scene of the movie, Truman watches his father “drown” in the ocean. To Kristoff and the show producers, this works out perfectly since Truman develops a phobia of traveling over water. But all these mechanisms designed to control Truman only seem to inspire him further. He can’t simply “get in line with the program.” He makes pictures of the first woman, he looks for ways to travel to Fiji, and he fancies himself an astronaut of his own planet. His passion cannot be quelled by complacency.
The moment Truman begins to break is telling: he finds three neighbors — hired extras — doing regular rotations around the block, playing the part of reality, and Truman subconsciously realizes he’s been thrown into the same kind of routine. Events escalate as Truman desperately tries to convince his wife of a conspiracy, by drifting his car and making faces (in a perfectly acted scene by Carrey), as if he’s rebelling against the assembly-line neighbors by spontaneously doing donuts around the street, and shortly after he attacks a group of men who have been ordered to detain him. The tonal shift here is jarring, as Truman fights the men while he’s screaming in agony. Carrey goes from hilarious to horrifying in a heartbeat; the latter drama is made all the more chilling by the former comedy. I found myself laughing nervously, recognizing how often that others “spin” us into a false narrative by denial and ridicule (I’m reminded of The X-Files and its perfectly paranoid atmosphere, the sense that we were being kept from the truth that everything is a lie). Truman begins to understand on some gut-level that he’s being controlled by invisible forces for some sinister purpose (like Mulder, he’s right).
My favorite scene in the movie is when Truman steps into the middle of the road and thrusts out his hands to stop traffic. The musical score here is incredible. For a moment, Truman is no longer a man on strings, finally stepping outside his comfort, risking his safety for answers, and for the movie watcher, this is a multi-layered feat of a movie becoming real by knowing it’s not. Truman doesn’t gain the answers here but he realizes he can find them.
The second theme, about the whoring of Truman for TV ratings, is even more relevant today than two decades ago. The movie was released in 1998, both when “reality shows” were entering our homes and Jim Carrey was the most paid actor in Hollywood, largely because of his scenery-chewing showmanship. Carrey’s casting could not have been a mistake; his own notoriety at the time is inseparable from the ideas of the movie. There’s a sly statement here about the ugly side of fame and our secret attraction to voyeurism, both sides feeding into each other like a tireless ouroboros. There’s a symbiotic (or parasitic) relationship between celebrity status and the public’s frenzy over fame for fame’s sake.
We might have laughed at this in 1998, but with Twitter, Periscope, and live feeds of Koreans eating food and making thousands of dollars per bite, everything and anything today is on display somehow, propped up in a global window for our two-second viewing pleasure (I say this not as an alarmist shaking my fist, but as an advocate of social media, knowing it can both help and harm). With trending hashtags, YouTubers, Instagram models, and candid moments caught on phones, nearly anyone can be a household name by the power of publicity.
The cost, of course, is that we become shallow entertainers and end up degrading ourselves for the chance to go temporarily “viral.” Like the audience who watches The Truman Show, we live vicariously through the rise and fall of famous strangers, because it creates an exciting narrative for us that drowns out our dreaded inner-silence. And maybe worst of all, we end up losing the rawness of our best moments if we’re only thinking about how to use them in a video or a blog post; we superimpose ourselves into a hologram of marketed outlandishness. Every private moment has become ripe for self-promotion.
Much like Truman, many of us are hoping to get back to something human, back in touch with who we really are outside the constant showcase. Many of us are tired of living half of our lives in the public eye. As the late, great Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, “[We] can telecast real lives—of course we must, right? But are these good things to do? The irony is, the people who will finally answer that question will be the very ones produced by the process.”
**Spoilers of the ending in the following paragraphs**
Having seen the movie so many times, there is one turn of events that used to bother me. Truman is reunited with his resurrected father and there’s a tearful embrace. In the very next scene, Truman makes a run for it. There’s no explanation, no transition, no thought process shown. Only much later did I make the connection: Truman’s tears in the embrace are not over his dead father returning, but in discovering that his world was fake all along. Truman realizes his worst suspicions are true, that his life has been a freakshow, that it’s not real — so he chooses to break free of the system. The return of Truman’s father is too much of a giveaway that this is all fantasy. This is made more clear in the next scene, when Truman puts on a show for the mirror in his bathroom and says, “That one’s for free.” When we see Kristoff the director overseeing the reunion, he thinks he has made the perfect masterpiece scene of his show, but he has unwittingly exposed the entire reality of Truman’s world to his dear puppet. The illusion, ironically, is shattered by the most viral video of Kristoff’s career. Undone by hubris, as the Greeks say. Man tries to play God, but man smells the counterfeit.
In the pivotal scene at the end, when Pseudo-Creator and Faux-Creation confront one another, Truman slams his fist against years and years of injustice. It moved me to tears. I don’t cry at the movies because I’d rather cry about actual news, and I’m not entirely sure why I cried then. I was surprised at my reaction. Years later did I begin to understand: that we all long to be free of our earthly prisons and are always on the verge of that freedom. We are always prodded by the divine to seek the something-more beyond our shackles.
The Truman Show, in the end, is punctuated by a final theme: the refusal of opportunism. The whole movie builds up to the conversation when Truman stands against his false creator, demanding release from his prostitution, rejecting both paradise and popularity. Truman says a resounding no to agendas and exploitation. He is no longer for sale, even if it would be more comfortable. In a culture where we constantly use people for what they can do instead of celebrating them for who they are, when we “marry for the money,” there’s a kind of sacredness and innocence to Truman’s decision, who wins back his dignity at the edge of the drowning waters that once held him. Truman realizes he is True Man after all.
Truman’s final doorway is the second chance at a real life and real freedom. He leaves safety because it isn’t worth the cost of real connection, with all its flaws and floppy edges. He leaves behind a picture-perfect relationship and chases after a love for who-she-really-is, because real love is unromantic this way, staying long past the Facebook-album honeymoon. None of this will be easy, but he knows it, and he takes the risk gladly. In a life where he had little choice, he still makes the most important one: to be true to his convictions. We can make the same choice each day.
TIME Magazine Cover, Credit: Peggy Sirota, U.S. Edition — June 1, 1998 Vol. 151 No. 21