1998 – The Truman Show

The Truman Show - Scott Rudin Productions

Remember, the key is films I want to write about rather than what I consider the best film of the year – although The Truman Show certainly can hold its head up high amongst that years offerings. Today the film looks almost prescient in its depiction of where television would go, and whilst we’ve not quite reached the level of programming shown here, the sheer quantity of reality television (or manufactured reality) on offer was predicted correctly. And remember, all of this was a full eighteen months before the first series of Big Brother kicked off the whole trend as far as the English speaking world was concerned.

I’ve commented in the past that outsiders are often better at looking at the peculiarities of a country than its actual residents, and although Peter Weir had long ago moved to America in order to continue in film, all of them were replete with outsiders. The difference here was that the outsider didn’t realise that they were different from everyone else as they had no point of reference, instead we the viewer were left to figure that out. The Truman Show is that strangest of Hollywood films, simultaneously unable to exist outside of the studio system (its apparent simplicity belies a large cost) whilst biting the hand that feeds it. The inclusion of Jim Carrey was seen by some at the time as a concession too far, what was this fool doing in a film about a serious subject? The truth is that Weir (as ever) realised that he needed a star to coat the pill that the audience needed to swallow – like Harrison Ford before him, Carrey sells the film to the public before the idea (which on paper at the time sounded far-fetched, oh how things have changed), although once we are in the cinema we realise that it wouldn’t have worked without him.

High concept films often live or die on their commitment to their big idea, no matter how illogical. If the director and cast don’t make you believe that the central conceit is plausible, then it will fail. Weir & Co. have no worries in this regard, playing everything to the right side of “fake” to sell the idea. The film doesn’t try to argue that the studio is trying to produce reality, but rather a packaged, commercialised version of reality – reality filtered through a thousand day time soaps (the film looks beautiful, all bright primary colours and bold patterns – David Lynch by way of The Simpsons) – presenting as much a critique of the perception of American Values (the irony here being that a country that values freedom has removed it from one its citizens), be they family, business or friendship. Everyone is lying to Truman, but we are complicit in this as the viewer, until we begin to yearn for his freedom as much as he does.

The whole film moves along with a brisk economy (it’s a shade over a hundred minutes, a good half hour shorter than the average film by that point), but never feels rushed. Weir makes sure that we have all the information we need and provides the cast with enough leverage to take the film in different directions. Once the question of Truman’s freedom is raised it becomes the focus of not only the film, but the viewers in the film. Weir’s clever enough to provide us with an audience model that isn’t monstrous or cruel, but rather a reflection of ourselves. Weir understands that we would be the audience. Weir (the outsider) views America not with cold detachment but more like a benign uncle asking “Why have you let this happen?”

It would be remiss to get this far without mentioning Carrey’s performance. Whilst the idiot-man-child isn’t too far below the surface he realises that Truman has to be like us, someone who hasn’t been duped into this situation through stupidity but through the grandest of lies. More interestingly even when confronted with the truth of the situation he never leaves character, his Truman accepts it with good grace because he now can explore beyond the confines of his prison. Other actors may have used the moment for a grand-standing scene of anger, here it is delivered with an almost throw-away line. Carrey understands that we need to be like Truman as well a viewer.

Likewise, Ed Harris isn’t evil – just misguided in his dedication to providing a piece of art. It’s interesting that whilst at first he seems to tick all of the cliché’s of the megalomaniac director, he never falls back on them for Christof’s emotions. We never see him get angry, and when Truman escapes he’s more confused that someone would like to leave behind perfection. Yes, there’s a whole “Garden of Eden” subtext, but the film (like ET and the numerous Christ-metaphor) never shoves them in your face and asks you to acknowledge how clever it is being. Some have argued that Christof is analogous with Lucifer, but I’ve never really seen that – he’s merely misguided into believing that art can be all.

In the end The Truman Show is pretty much an example of how good the studio system can be when it wants to be. It takes an intelligent, interesting premise and doesn’t dumb it down, but rather makes it accessible to the masses. It would have been far too easy to make this into an obscure little film that questions the deeper, less savoury aspects of the premise (the question of sex is pretty quickly glossed over) at the expense of the bigger picture. Instead Weir used it as a means of focussing (as always) on the outsider looking in to a society, to play it for raw emotion as well as intellect. That he happened to be quite so prescient about the future of television was just the icing on the cake.

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