The Truman Show (1998)
Written by Andrew Niccol
Directed by Peter Weir
In 1991, screenwriter Andrew Niccol began shopping around a spec script for The Malcolm Show. It was a science-fiction thriller set in New York City that focused on a man discovering his life was a television show, and he tried to escape the control of his handlers. Many directors were considered: Brian DePalma, Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Steven Spielberg. Eventually, the studio chose to go with Peter Weir, who saw the script as too dark. Instead, he wanted to emphasize the satire of the situation, still holding onto the core existential dread of the concept, but presenting it with a lightness to counter that thematic weight.
Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is a 30-year-old resident of Seahaven Island, a place he’s never left once. He’s married to the lovely nurse Meryl (Laura Linney) and has a best friend since childhood, pal Louis (Noah Coltrane). Truman goes through the same paces every day working as an insurance salesman. However, he secretly pines for Sylvia (Natasha McElhone), a woman he met while in university but was whisked away under mysterious circumstances. Truman doesn’t realize that his entire life has been manufactured as content for a television series. His surroundings are directed by Christof (Ed Harris) from his studio, hidden inside the false moon. Truman has no idea the sky he stares up at every day is merely a matte painting on the inside of a massive metal dome in Hollywood.
The Truman Show feels like a perfect extension of the ideas explored in the messier Fearless. Here the themes of human existence and meaning are much more tightly constructed. The Truman Show is absolutely Weir’s masterpiece, the best film in his career that communicates all the lofty ideas his previous work pondered in the most precise fashion, both intellectually sharp and emotionally powerful. There’s a quick jump to talk about how the picture predicted the “always streaming” state of the internet today, where people are logging their daily lives in video and photos, seeing themselves as the star of an imaginary show. While the movie certainly feels prescient in that regard, I argue that The Truman Show uses the metaphor of television to talk about primal fears & thoughts about being a human in the modern world.
One of the most apparent metaphors is the relationship between Truman and the aptly named Christof. The director is meant to be a stand-in for the Divine, an invisible hand reaching down and shaping the world around a person to “make them happy.” Truman’s pushback against this is the classic debate between free will vs. predestination/fate/destiny. Are our lives our own creation, or is something else guiding us, and certain things are inevitable no matter what we do? Weir clearly believes that free will is real and that it is heroic to push back against ideas to the contrary. The “invisible hand” is not God but man-made systems of wealth & power consolidation that cause people to feel powerless, that their lives are not their own. In the worst circumstances, free will fashioned into an extension of this guidance, causing ourselves to be the architect of our misery after decades of media conditioning.
Weir’s work always focuses on this experience from the individual perspective, but I think adding a collectivist perspective would be an interesting route. That is touched on slightly through the outside world. Throughout the picture, it cuts to various regular viewers who are deeply devoted to what happens to Truman. They behave almost like members of a religion, and through the life narrative of Truman, they have their beliefs either verified or challenged. It is telling that by the end of the film, when Truman has completely defied Christof and is about to leave the show, these people are elated; they experience an explosion of joyous emotion. Truman’s false history is shaped to reflect the world of the viewer. It would have made more sense practically to raise Truman to believe there is nothing beyond this tiny world, but that would have proven inauthentic to the viewer. Thus, some nuggets of truth have to be inserted so that the audience will be as fully invested as the studio needs them to be. Truman needs to know there is a larger world just like them so that they, too, will swallow the message that staying put and not pushing against one’s boundaries is a good thing.
This raises an even bigger idea of what the real world actually is. The lamp that crashes and sparks Truman’s curiosity is a stand-in for the real star Sirius. Sirius is one of the brightest stars in the sky and was commonly used by early explorers as a directional guide. By the conclusion, Truman reaches the edges of this artificial world and literally punches through it with his boat. If we go back to the audience of devotees, we can see that for them, Truman’s world is the same as their own; they are both perceived as real worlds. Weir delivers a story about some of humans’ most fundamental experiences and desires.
Our world is a construct shaped by many powerful human forces to the point they have taken on some sense of the Divine. Our identities are also constructions, shaped by these same forces and our societies. Try having a conversation with someone you know about a topic constantly in the media. You will often hear them simply parroting the same things they have heard without any critical deconstruction or investigation into these claims. We are all Truman in that we can feel something is not right about the world we live in; we can tell that everything is off. There’s dissatisfaction beneath the surface of everything. In the apoplectic rage that explodes out of people in high tension service situations, you can see it. For example, the person chucking their food and screaming obscenities at a fast-food eatery.
We know that no matter how much we consume, it will never deliver the satisfaction marketing tells us it will. Poverty, mental illness, and physical ailment cannot be overcome by religion, product consumption, or civic engagement in ultimately shallow political systems. These systems only seek to atomize our connections to each other, causing us to mentally perceive ourselves as the star of all of our shows, what’s referred to as “main character” syndrome in the popular discourse. Free will is an illusion as long as people silently concede to the powers-that-be that it is. The way we engage with reality will be to break through false constructs we’ve helped build around our minds. That’s easier said than done, for sure, but we as a collective species will never be free until we understand this is the way to a better world.