It’s been over twenty years since I last saw The Truman Show. It has stuck with me, partly because it is the first movie I saw twice in the theaters on the same day. Quite frankly, it floored me. It was seen as a commentary on the new television trend known as reality television. But since then, its legacy and commentary have grown more prescient.
Peter Weir is a director whose works are often somewhat inscrutable to mainstream audiences. Oftentimes, there is a philosophical bent to his films, not in the sense that so many modern-day blockbusters seem fond of, but with the poet’s sincerity, sometimes making his movies feel overly sentimental.
A curious thing happened with The Truman Show, however. About a year after the movie came out, Ron Howard made a movie called EDtv, also about reality television and without the high concept and grand scope. Their similar satirical aims and similar plots led to the two films constantly being compared. Most agreed that The Truman Show was a better movie, but EDtv was more accurate.
But since then, the internet has grown to such a degree that a movie about a man named Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) who discovers his entire life is a television show is no longer a mere fable about reality television. Because you see, when Andrew Niccol wrote the script and Weir made the film, YouTube and Twitch did not exist. Indeed, the internet itself exists in a way few thought it would back then.
I’m fond of saying that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and part of what that means is some works of art become more relevant with time, whether they meant to or not.
The Truman Show is about many things, faith, voyeurism, identity, love, and much more. I’d say capitalism, but honestly, all art made in capitalism is about capitalism in one form or another. It’s almost redundant to say so, but since some have fooled themselves into thinking art has no meaning or purpose other than distraction, I mention it for consistency’s sake.
Jim Carrey as Truman was a wild choice because, in 1998, Carrey was a comedic star and a broad one at that. It’s akin to Paul Thomas Anderson casting Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love; it never occurred to us as fans that they had it in them. What makes Carrey such a fascinating choice is how much he disappears into Truman.
Truman is an everyman, an average nobody, beloved by millions around the world. He is the unwitting star of his own show, yes, but Truman himself is unremarkable. Niccol’s script doesn’t reveal Truman is in a television show until halfway through the film. For some, this is frustrating and aggravating as Weir continually hints at the strangeness of Truman’s world.
But that’s the genius of Niccol and Weir’s framing of the story. We gradually begin to like Truman and root for him because Carrey is likable as Truman. Bit by bit Niccol and Weir begin to pull back the curtain. A studio stage light crashes onto Truman’s street. Truman’s car radio picks up the radio frequency the crew uses. Or most startlingly, an elevator has no back and instead seems to be a place where extras gather at the snack table.
The conceit of the film and the logic of how a man could be the star of a television show all his life without knowing it is summed up by the show’s creator, Christof (Ed Harris). “We accept the reality we are given,” On the surface, The Truman Show seems to be an exploration of the current pseudo-intellectual debate du jour, “simulation theory.”
But what the film is getting at is something much larger. The millions of fans worldwide watch Truman because he reminds them of them, and he loves, cries, and frets, much like they do. But in a way, they do it with him, so they don’t have to do it alone.
Of all the arts, except for possibly the theater, movies exploit the basic human tendency to be voyeurs. Some of the art actively critiques that, while others pat us on the head and tell us not to worry. The Truman Show interrogates our craving for voyeurism and shows us an almost absurd mirror image of ourselves.
In 1998 it was a satire to suggest people would sit around their television for hours at a time to watch a show about a man living his life. Absurd to think bars would dedicate themselves to a singular show, like a sports team. But in 2021, a year after a pandemic, and in a reality where people binge-watch shows that are structured not unlike episodes of Truman’s life, and Twitch in which people spend hours and hours just sitting in front of a computer monitor playing games, asking questions, or watching videos.
We are a society of voyeurs. Don’t even get me started on how plausible it is for a corporation to adopt a child and imprison him in a giant television studio and turn him into ratings and advertising super-star. Again, in 1998 outlandish. In 2021 corporations are people and have a Twitter account.
Still, it’s easy to get lost in themes and theory and ignore Carrey’s nuanced and lovable performance as the guileless Truman. Or the way Laura Linney plays Meryl, Truman’s wife, as a woman committing to a role of a lifetime while also screaming, “Get me out of here!” with her eyes. Truman’s lifelong best friend Louis (Noah Emmrich) seems nice but always seems to have the same solution to every problem, showing up to Truman’s house with an ice-cold six-pack.
The Truman Show is a movie that rewards rewatching, not because you notice things you didn’t before; that’s called basic movie making. But in how it sparks new ideas every time you watch it. In how it makes you wonder, not just about the story, but how it’s going about it.
Weir and his cinematographer, the great Peter Biziou, create a world where everything is a camera, providing countless different angles, lenses, and points of view. A fact they have fun with as they often switch between these cameras without explanation, allowing you to figure it out before the mid-way reveal. But Biziou also adds a grander visual style; there’s a scope to how he frames his shot, giving us a sense of the size and thought put into Truman’s make-believe world.
Combined with the unique score of Wojciech Kilar, Burkhard Dallwitz, and the legendary Phillip Glass, the music ranges from discordant to ethereal. The score is part of what makes The Truman Show so transcendent. It underlines every moment and accompanies every visual choice while drawing us in and revealing Truman’s emotions.
Amidst all of this, The Truman Show dares to be funny, cynical, and whimsical. Carrey is muted compared to his other performances, but there are sparks of that old Carrey manic energy that erupts and yet always seems appropriate. Niccol and Weir, in dreaming up the different ways brand names and products would advertise, it must be said, are so inspired it borders on prophecy.
The Truman Show looked at the modern world and created what we thought was an exaggerated world. Then we surprised the artists and surpassed even their cynical fantasies about ourselves. Yet, there is hope. Change is possible; we just have to have the courage to meet it.
Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures
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