The Truman Show (1998) dir. Peter Weir
Starring: Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone
In the late 90’s a number of films explored the notion of artificial or manufactured realities, “The Matrix” (1999), “Dark City” (1998), “EdTV” (1999), “eXistenZ” (1999), “The Game” (1997), “Fight Club” (1999). Arguably, the most profound and relevant of them all is Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show”. Andrew Niccol’s screenplay which tells the story of a man who’s entire life since birth has been unknowing lived in front of the entire world via a hidden camera TV show.
On the surface it could be seen as a rather obvious warning about the direction of reality television, or another piece of big brother Orwellian commentary. But the hook of the “The Truman Show” goes much deeper than a mere satirization of television, voyeurism and celebrityism, it isn’t until the magnificent final scene do we realize the film reaches so far as to pose and answer the question of the meaning life.
The film opens with oblique and fake credits, and fake actors referring to some TV show called “The Truman Show”. These are all the hints we get before we’re launched into the life of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), 30-something insurance broker who lives some kind of idyllic and anti-septic middle class life on a coastal island called Seahaven.
Truman continually expresses an urge to break free from the clausterphobic life, but his wife (Laura Linney) his best friend (Noah Emmerich) even the TV commercials he sees on TV tell him that ‘there’s no place like home’. Strange occurances happen around him as well, a satellite dropping from the sky, a rainshower localizes around him only, strange people seem to know his name. Truman senses something is wrong in his world but he just can’t put his finger on it. Gradually Truman’s world unravels revealing that his life has been manufactured from birth to be a reality hidden camera television running 24-7 for over 30 years. With the whole world watching Truman escapes unaware he's about to confront his own existence face-to-face.
“The Truman Show” works so wonderfully well because Weir is careful to show the world from Truman’s specific point of view. Though we are teased with reactions from the outside world, virtually every shot is taken from the hidden cameras which capture Truman’s life. It’s only until in the third act do we learn of the extent to which this TV show has created this false reality for Truman.
The final scene is one of the great existential moments in film. It has similar impact to, say, the final act of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. After Truman miraculously evades the cameras and escapes into a sailboat to get off the island, and after surviving the intense seastorm which the show’s creator manufactured for him, Truman is at a place of calm and peace – a fulfillment of a lifelong dream. But when his boat strikes literally the edge of the world, Truman faces what at that very moment is the meaning of his life.
In many ways this moment is more profound than “It’s a Wonderful Life” because George’s moment was divine intervention – a deux ex machina, if you will, external to the story – but everything in Niccol’s screenplay builds to this moment. Peter Biziou's choreography of the scene maximizes the emotional impact as well. The set painting which looks like the sky and clouds is the perfect metaphor for the artificiality which Truman has loudly burst through. Weir’s carefully chosen music – an older cue from Phillip Glass – sets the right melancholy tone.
As a piece of speculative science fiction it’s not hard to believe that “The Truman Show” could really happen. Ed Harris’ great line expresses this succinctly, “we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented”. "The Truman Show" is a cultural milestone. Enjoy.
"The Truman Show" is available on Blu-Ray from Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment