The Truman Show Hid Glorious Blasphemy in a Reality TV Allegory

At 25, the Jim Carrey vehicle stands out as one of the last spectacles of its kind

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The Truman Show Hid Glorious Blasphemy in a Reality TV Allegory

The Truman Show is a movie consciously designed to look like it is a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s not an insult: It serves the story in every way that director Peter Weir’s dramedy about a man whose entire life from birth has been surreptitiously recorded and broadcast to the entire world—every last minute of it, no commercial breaks—is visibly and consciously artificial. Every scene is framed in such a way that you know there are caterers waiting in the wings, that you can just envision the tech crew crawling through service tunnels just out of view, that the setting of Seahaven Island has all the appearance of a thrown-together Spaghetti Western set that’s 90% facade. It’s a breezy Jim Carrey vehicle filmed at the height of the guy’s success, doesn’t always trust its audience to make the necessary inferences, and (this is the highest compliment I can pay any piece of art) is one of the most casually blasphemous allegories I have ever seen in my whole life.

What is our duty to a child, or to a parent, or to the world, or to our creator? Should happiness and safety take precedence over truth and free will? If we are robbed of choice, do we live in a “real” world? If you really could engineer the creation of an intelligent being and the garden he lives in to your own exacting design, is there any way that doing so is not an inherently self-serving act? And is letting him go to wander east of Eden mercy or cruelty? Let’s say you already have been sacrificed for all humanity: Are you obligated to continue for their sake?

I’m not trying to be melodramatic here! I’m saying this is a Jim Carrey comedy they made for $60 million, and yet it asks existential questions like these with more nuance than Bicentennial Man did with just north of half the budget.

Truman Burbank (Carrey) is the kind of pleasant, inoffensive person you find in the next cubicle after you finally land the job that makes you stop worrying about your balance every time you fill up the gas tank. Every day seems to play out the same for him: Get up, clown around in his mirror for a bit, greet his neighbors on the way to work at his job as an insurance salesman. He makes sure to buy a fashion magazine (for the wife!), and in his spare time he yearns endlessly to go to Fiji. His wife (Laura Linney) is the perfect partner, though she does seem to be very motivated to spout the key features of new products she buys for her husband. The guy lives a charmed life. It just so happens to be completely fabricated.

As the movie is perhaps a bit too quick to reveal to us, Truman is the star of the world’s most elaborate reality television show. An unwanted child, Truman was adopted by the corporation that conceived this TV show, and his entire life has been covertly recorded and broadcast to the world. (In particular, it’s unfortunate that the movie reveals early on that the set of the show is a massive domed habitat, so large that it is visible from orbit. This would’ve been a far stronger third-reel reveal, but it feels as if somebody felt audiences might not have the patience for it to take that long to be explained.)

We know from the jump that Truman is being gaslit on a level never before seen: Everybody in his life is in on the grift, even his wife and his best drinking buddy (Noah Emmerich). Soon enough, Truman begins to suspect, too. Even the inciting incident is tinged with weighty symbolism: A lamp falls out of the sky from seemingly nowhere, shattering mere feet from Truman as he heads to work. The casing is labeled “Sirius,” a star the Romans believed to presage ill tidings. It’s one of a series of fuck-ups by the tech crew in charge, who are lorded over by a man with the perfectly narcissistic mononym of Christof (Ed Harris, his trademark glower paired with a wardrobe that screams “I’m at the Met Gala and not happy about it”).

It becomes clear to us that Truman, happily married and employed though he is, can’t stop dreaming about a chance encounter with a young woman from his last days of college (Natascha McElhone). It’s revealed that she is on Team Free Truman, but it sure seems a lonely team: Christof’s softball interview with Harry Shearer reveals that very few people seem at all bothered by the fact a company just adopted Truman, and some of the best little scenes in the film are of viewers all over the world who act as the Greek chorus. (Two elderly ladies, whom history will surely call roommates, have Truman’s image on their couch pillows.)

The Truman Show, the show within the movie, is the most popular show in television history, and it doesn’t seem implausible. Neither does the panic Truman begins to feel as it becomes clear to him that his life is a lie and he’s trapped on a tiny little island, being watched by absolutely everyone.

“If he was absolutely determined to discover the truth,” Christof says, “there’s no way we could prevent him.”

Especially in light of recent news items, a lot of people have adopted the narrative that says the 2007-2008 writer’s strike caused the glut of reality TV. Others have pushed back on it a bit: Reality shows were already in the planning phases, and dumb bullshit like Survivor, American Idol and The Real World had debuted years prior. Go back further, and you find that reality TV was a thing even as early as 1948 with Candid Camera. The unfiltered, unscripted lives of people fascinate us. We know that film is artifice, and that real life doesn’t look or sound like it. We worry about authenticity all the time, especially in moments of heightened drama in our real lives: Is this how I’m supposed to mourn my dead parent? Is this how I’m supposed to congratulate a friend who got promoted ahead of me?

Reality TV, of course, does not show us that longed-for authenticity—I don’t think anybody believes that it does. It is as scripted and as controlled as anything else on the airwaves, just (much, much) less elegantly. It’s therefore no surprise that Christof supervises every last detail of Truman’s life. Every camera angle, every microphone, the rising and setting of the sun, the background music the public hears, and even flashbacks to his earlier life.

What reality TV is, near as I can tell, is a bizarre kind of ritual sacrifice. South Park equated the public torture of Britney Spears to the same idea (even referencing a film adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” which is so obscure I only remember it from middle school). Some people just need to see Snooki or Mama June or any of the horribly behaved kids on Nanny 911 so that they can feel some kind of superiority.

The fact it’s a real person getting dragged through the ringer is the entire appeal of it. It’s this aspect of the whole phenomenon that’s put on display in the last reel of the film, though not nearly as deeply as it could’ve been. Christof, we find, is Truman’s creator in every way that matters, right up to breaking him psychologically while he was in grade school to ensure that he has a crippling fear of ever breaking out of his gilded panopticon. He’s provided joy and inspiration to billions, Christof argues, and hey, he’s free to leave whenever he wants! But it’s bullshit: Truman’s marriage was planned, and he’s being gently railroaded into having a kid, too, one who will be born into the same prison he lives in. Christof is certainly deaf to Truman’s explicit yearning to leave, and he sidelines Truman’s panicked attempts by pulling the cruelest possible emotional trump card.

The trailers for The Truman Show ask things like “What if you were watched every moment of your life?” It’s a quaint question from a 1998 movie, isn’t it? Our current social media-addled surveillance state is one reason the movie remains resonant today. One reason it’s stuck with me so much is how Truman’s travails so closely mirror another man’s imprisonment in and fruitless attempts to escape an idyllic, overly friendly seaside town. But it’s also the left turn into the weighty themes I mentioned before that have kept me thinking about it for decades.

Truman may look as if he’s back to his old self after Christof’s final manipulation, but he’s just learned to look content. To the horror of everyone in charge, from his central casting friends and family to the security guards with LOVE HIM, PROTECT HIM emblazoned on their uniforms, Truman slips the leash. His final flight evokes strange inversions of biblical imagery more than anything: A sacrificial figure undergoing torment to stop being sacrificed. A child of the garden fighting for the ability to leave it rather than being cast out of it for disobedience.

In the very last scene, the best of the movie, Truman comes to the end of the horizon. There are stairs leading up to a door that leads out—all the way out. And he gets something none of us ever get: The opportunity to speak to his creator. I’ve always thought that it’s too short a moment and that it comes too late, but maybe Weir knew such a light movie couldn’t support something so heavy for long. Christof pleads with him to stay. The viewers of the world are on the edge of their seats.

Truman’s final choice (really his first choice) is one of the most triumphant moments in film. The world cheers and cries tears of joy. The image of the dome painted to look like the sky, the stairs appearing to ascend into it, is indelible.

“What else is on?” one of his adoring admirers asks, right before the cut to credits, just to remind you how depressingly real it all is.

Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses and read more at his blog.

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