Monday Morning Movie Review: Ponty’s Top Ten Best Films: #2: The Truman Show (1998)

Ponty picked an impressive film for his #2 slot, one that I wish had made it onto my list (it may end up as an honorable mention!).  The Truman Show (1998) is a powerful, surprisingly dark comedy about materialism, consumerism, and mass media, exploring what happens when we take reality television to its logical extreme.  What’s fascinating is that this film largely predates reality television, outside of the trash that aired on MTV at the time.

I won’t spoil Ponty’s review (he considerately offers a spoiler alert, but if you haven’t managed to see this flick in the twenty-five years since its release, you’re way outside of the “no spoilers!” statute of limitations), but he touches upon many of the troubling implications of enslaving an unwitting human in an artificial world and broadcasting the results of this forbidden experiment to the world.  I, too, wonder how Truman would live outside of the show; a part of me suspects he might go back to the only world he’s ever known, though I hope he never did.

With that, here is Ponty’s review of 1998’s The Truman Show:

Spoiler alert!

Ah, Seahaven Island. Who wouldn’t want to live there? It’s a friendly place. The weather is always good. The houses are neat, white picket fences standing in front of well kept lawns. The streets are tidy and to cap it off, it is surrounded by a beautiful, calm ocean. That sounds perfect, doesn’t it? Maybe a little too perfect?

Well, for 99.9% of Seahaven’s denizens, it is simply wonderful. For Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), however, it is a seemingly inescapable nightmare. You wonder why when you observe his life. He has a good job, he is well liked, he is married, has a great relationship with his best friend and is living in Perfection, USA. Except that he is not. He comes to realise that he is the star of a 24/7 global television show, The Truman Show, watched by billions across the world, and that Seahaven is a manufactured set where everyone—from its citizens to his wife, his friends—even his parents are actors.

Cut off from the rest of the world—his father was killed in a boating accident when he was a child, leaving him with a crippling fear of the water—and besotted by a woman he met before he married, his search to find the truth is hindered by the show’s creator, Christof (Ed Harris), who uses emotional and physical devices to keep his star from leaving.

On the surface, this is a visually bright film. The costumes are colourful, the buildings white, the sky blue and the sea balmy. It’s all designed to put you at ease. However, this is flat out the darkest film I have ever watched in my life. Imagine having your whole life planned out for you, where the people you meet and fall in love with have been strategically placed there, not for you but for the edification of billions of people you have never met. That your life is someone else’s entertainment.

Adopted by the studio specifically for this show, the world watches Truman grow from a baby to an adult. They see his first steps, watch him start high school and graduate, observe his college years and subsequent progression into employment. They view his good and bad moments. His hobbies, his habits, the time spent with friends, family, potential girlfriends. Thanks to over 5000 cameras scattered across Seahaven, practically every movement Truman makes is captured and screened to the world. This is consumerism at its lowest. Truman is exploited by both studio and audience, his life gobbled up by viewers fascinated by this real person in a confected environment. For the best part of his 30 years on the show, Truman is absolutely clueless but after a glitch in his car’s technology, he starts to realise he is part of something bigger.

Understandably upset, Truman seeks out his best friend, Marlon (Noah Emmerich), who is fed lines by Christof in order to placate Truman. That scene still cracks me up. ‘The last thing I would ever do is lie to you,’ says Marlon, as he lies to him.

Throughout the film, Truman expresses his desire to travel but his passion is always rebutted. After all, there’s no show without its star and everyone from creator down makes damn sure Truman is going nowhere. In flashbacks, we see Truman as a young boy standing up in class exclaiming his wish to be an explorer. His teacher draws down a full map at the front of class and says, ‘why, everywhere has already been explored.’ When his wife, Meryl, senses his desire to leave, she pops up what she says is his favourite TV show, in which the presenter informs his viewers that ‘there is no better place than home.’

When he tries to get away by bus, the blooming thing breaks down. By air (sitting in the travel agents, he notices a heavily conspicuous poster of a plane wing being hit by lightning), he is informed there are no flights. By car, the way is blocked by fire and then by a confected accident. And by now, we know he won’t travel by boat. His tragedy is replayed to the audience and on the off chance Truman forgets, he is reminded about it by those around him, gaslighting him into believing that he was somehow responsible.

Jim Carrey was born to play this role. He really buys into the essence of who Truman is; essentially, a man bored and frustrated by his existence, further troubled when his delusion about the world around him turns into shocking reality. He uses humour as a way to placate his tedium but as he becomes more aware of the world around him, he slips deeper into paranoia, seeking comfort in all the wrong places until finally, he snaps and endeavours to escape. That final scene, where he realises the absolute scope in which he has been kept, is as heartbreaking as it is exhilirating.

Ed Harris is brilliant as the egomaniacal Christof, a man with a serious God complex. In many ways, he is also suffering from his own delusions. At no point in the entirety of this film does he show contrition. He believes he has given Truman the opportunity to live in a better world, trying to persuade Truman of that when our titular character is on the verge of leaving. The irony is that though Christof has lived and breathed this show for 30 years, he really doesn’t know Truman at all. In many ways, you could say that he has lived and breathed Seahaven, this ideal environment which he believes is the perfection, the Eden many of us long for. I think he hoped Truman would embrace it as he has but he never considers what life might be like for a real person in a fabricated system. That his utopia might be someone else’s dystopia. I like to hope that thought was going through his mind as Truman bowed to the camera, to him, before his exit but who knows?

Noah Emmerich and Laura Linney are excellent as Truman’s best friend and wife respectively. While Marlon has a habit of smiling at odd moments, he provides warmth, humour, and comfort for Truman when the latter is struggling with his environment. In fact, Marlon is probably a good part of the reason Truman doesn’t leave sooner. In a fabricated town, filled to the brim with bad actors, Marlon appears more real to Truman than anyone else. Truman’s wife, Meryl, on the other hand, is as terrible as they come. She is always smiling at the camera. She product places items in strange moments; in one of these instances, she advertises a brand of cocoa partway through an argument. She’s as Stepford Wife as you could get and Truman, in a humourous twist of irony, acts as if he’s contented around her, even though you can see he despises her.

One of the reasons for that is Lauren/Sylvia (Natasha McElhone), who we gather is an extra on the show but who catches Truman’s eye in his youth. He steals her away and they find themselves on the beach where they share a passionate kiss and she tries to tell him about the world in which he inhabits before she is dragged away by a man claiming to be her father. While his life is shaped around him, he never forgets about her, taking cuttings from magazines in an effort to form the face he loved as a teenager, Sylvia watching him on TV from her home. While Marlon is pivotal in keeping him in Seahaven, Sylvia may also be just as crucial in his desire to leave.

Peter Weir allows the many cameras scattered across Seahaven to tell the story; a good majority of the film is viewed through the circular lenses of the hidden cameras tracking Truman’s life. It truly shows the scope into which this one man is being watched and it makes one feel slightly claustrophobic. In fact, the way Weir directs this film reminds me of that scene in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets (2002) where the narcissistic Gilderoy Lockhart smiles at a framed picture of him painting himself. In that sense, he hands the reins to Christof and allows him to direct, even adding a soundtrack to poignant or dangerous moments within the show. It’s a clever device and moreover, it works.

There are some quirky satirical elements in this story. The mocking of not just Hollywood but of the wide eyed zombies who watch the show. People really will watch anything, no matter how repetitive or tedious it is. I imagine the only real action comes when Truman is leaving but what of the show before that? They watch this man from birth, through his childhood, early adulthood and beyond but it’s never going to compare to the soaps we see in reality. For one, our soaps will see tragedies at every turn. Characters jumping into bed with each other, trying to screw each other over, being killed by each other. I personally find them boring but to the many soap fans out there, they’re gripped by this; there’s always something to pique their interest. But The Truman Show?

One of the real tragedies to this story is what Truman’s life would look like in the real world. His qualifications would be useless. What real skills would he have, when everything has been placed at his feet throughout his entire life? And that’s not the worst part. Practically every human being with a TV set would know who he is, having watched him for most of their lives. He’d never get a moment’s peace. In many ways, life for him away from Seahaven would feel as manufactured as the life he gave up.

The Truman Show has its comical moments, but for the most part, this is a sad but inspired tale about a man who is abused for most of his life and who finally plucks up the courage, when all is revealed to him, to escape his stagnant existence and live. Where there is dark, there is also light and in light, Truman clings onto the hope that his life may find meaning. And we are privileged to follow him on his journey towards truth, love, and life.


4 thoughts on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Ponty’s Top Ten Best Films: #2: The Truman Show (1998)

  1. Cheers mate. 🙂

    Your introduction is very pertinent to the sentiments of this film which, in the main, is a dissection of the human condition. In this film, Truman and Sylvia aside, it is found wanting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One way in which this film succeeds, especially as science fiction, is that it makes a (subtle) point about human nature and our tendency to sacrifice scruples to voyeuristic pleasure. What I find striking is that, as dark as the film is, the ending has the upbeat feel of a late 90s comedy. It doesn’t dwell on the “what now” questions, but instead leaves it up to us, the audience, to ponder these questions, even as the film ends on a hopeful note.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Very true. I remember reading something a while ago about guitarists who have the unusual ability to lift a note/chord when it sounds like it should be shifting down. It gives it a pleasant sound even though you can also hear it shifting the other way. I’d say that’s very much the direction the end of this film offers up. We whoop, we cheer and we try not to answer the unsaid until the credits roll.

        Liked by 1 person

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