High concept is always a tricky beast. By its very nature, it always threatens to completely overshadow its own efforts and render the effort to capture the wonder of an emphatic hypothetical question rather academic. The query pondered by Peter Weir’s 1998 satire The Truman Show was one that any viewer can appreciate; ‘What if every moment of your life was being televised for the entertainment of the masses?’ In effect, what if your existence was a lie, a conspiracy that everybody else was in on? You would have no way of knowing, beyond perhaps paranoid convictions regarding the ironically unseen.
What makes The Truman Show a modern classic and, dare I say, a masterpiece is that it takes that question and dwarfs it with a story high on intelligence, both intellectual and emotional, and turns a gambit plot into an astonishing tome that while parodying the then birthing reality TV revolution and explosion of intrusive technology, ultimately focuses on the human condition. A fabulously executed background of cynical marketing and age old exploitation of the ethically irrelevant individual is perfect window dressing for a tale of that lone man’s crusade to find the truth, find himself and find an escape from one’s plight of the soul. Thank Peter Weir and, yes, thank Jim Carrey.
Carrey is Truman Burbank, happy go lucky citizen of the idyllic island hometown Seahaven, happily married to the perfect wife (Laura Linney’s Meryl), backed by the perfect best friend (Noah Emmerich’s Marlon) and effectively living the dream. What he doesn’t realize is that it isn’t his dream – Seahaven is the world’s largest film set, his entire life is the world’s most successful ongoing TV show and everybody in his company is an actor, fed lines to keep him in check. As the series, named in titular fashion The Truman Show, reaches its thirtieth year, Truman begins to notice small hints within his existence that point to the truth. The contrived scenarios that have kept him within Seahaven and the unusually utilitarian behavior of his loved ones add up in his head to the apparent delusion that he is being tricked into staying onboard. This pits him into an unknowing battle of wills with show creator Christof (Ed Harris) as the ambitiously immoral yet paternal God of Truman’s life attempts to prevent him from discovering the truth and, worst of all, exiting the stage.
Aussie director Weir and screenwriter Andrew Niccol set their subversion-friendly stall out from the start by avoiding the obvious narrative approach of putting us in Truman’s shoes. The film opens audaciously with the TV Show’s introduction and a retrospective look at its history, meaning that we begin this journey in the same position of the fictional viewers. We know what’s really going on before the main character does, and we won’t be treated to any plot twists or mind bending discoveries. Instead, the fact that Truman is the only one who doesn’t know becomes quite meta, and the process consists of watching him uncovering the lies that surround him alone, as he has been since the day of his televised birth. Conversely to the norm, Truman is an outsider because he is the only one on the inside. This creative decision means we get to savor the attention to detail and obsessive risk management stratagem put in place by the programmers, who have their protagonist located in a controlled set with its own weather management and thousands of hidden cameras. Not a second of the life led by Truman has escaped the attention of his fans, all the way from birth to bereavement to the discovery of intimacy.
This set up has been executed beautifully, both in-universe and as a depicted drama. Small winks and nods to the viewer are deployed effortlessly into the action, from the use of in-show advertising that sees wife Meryl inexplicably voice the merits of supermarket profits, down to the imaginative methods used to allow actors to break from their day job (the actor portraying Marlon was excused under the pretext of the character becoming sick and hospitalized). Even Truman’s fears have been created by deliberate circumstances; his phobia of water, which prevents him from finding a way off the studio, was engineered by the ‘death’ of his father at sea. Rogue extras are tackled when trying to disturb the illusion, romantic interludes are staged, and glitches in production are given quick in-universe explanations. A lighting rig falling from the studio ceiling, an event occurring at the start of the film, is dismissed as a plane shedding parts on the radio show Truman later listens to. The sheer power of thought put into the fictional scenario is incredible, and means that suspension of disbelief is utterly unconditional. The show seems feasible, and thus the film is allowed to become both engrossing and emotionally charged.
When it does, it is a wonder of the eyes and heart. While the sentimental moments within the show, usually deployed to preserve the lie, are understandably schmaltzy and cinematic, the real feelings that permeate are subtle and understated, intelligent and believable. After thirty years of essentially running his life, Christof’s twisted devotion and love for his creation is oddly sobering and touching. He strokes the cheek of an image of Truman like an overwhelmed father, and it is not just professional endeavor which makes him intent on keeping his ‘son’ happy. There is a definite subtext within their one-way relationship, that of a parent fearing the loss of their child to the world, and desperately attempting to preserve their innocence. The darker flipside to this of course is the damage being done and the inhumane control being exploited to stop a person from being who they want to be. Christof’s need to maintain has seen Truman’s ambitions and childhood dreams of world exploration shot down, his ‘one true love’ (Natascha McElhone’s Sylvia, founder of the ‘Free Truman’ movement) torn from his arms and even the pain of losing his ‘real’ father artificially stamped on to his emotional core. It is complex, harrowing and absolutely impeccably depicted – what debt is owed to the always extraordinary Ed Harris for pulling off the humanity of the monster, acting against type as the serene, artsy and perhaps pretentious show runner.
This serenity, and Truman’s natural personality of bubbly optimism, is punctured during the film’s absolutely enthralling final act. By this stage, Truman has whittled down the props and the scenes and worked it out. At the very least he’s crazy and has to get away from the molly-coddling friends and family around him. His escape, finally managing to escape the attentions of the cameras and disappearing from sight, is the catalyst for the show going off the air for the first time and the troupe of actors within mounting a huge search and rescue operation. Every trick that Christof has at his disposable is utilized, even raising the false sun at midnight. Finally they find him, in the closing stages of his escape, at sea on a small boat. Like a vengeful God, Christof turns the sea against Truman as the desperate and sick scenario returns to the airwaves.
Millions watch as their hero is pounded by storms, defiantly screaming to the heavens “Is that all you’ve got? You’re going to have to KILL ME!” It is a truly epic final battle, one that Truman unknowingly is winning. Even as crew members and executives openly voice their disgust at the prospect of killing a person on TV, Christof remains stubbornly intent. What’s wrong with killing a man on live television, he wonders, when he was born on live television? This drama is enriched by a thousand cuts. Paul Giamatti’s loyal techie tearfully refuses orders, abandoning the controls of the weather simulator; viewers scream in support as Truman fights on; Sylvia tearfully prays for his survival. As far as finales go, it is one of the most astonishing of its era. It also proves the perfect climax, and precursor to Truman reaching the wall of his reality and walking to the door. Speaking like a voice from the unknown, Christof pleads with him to stay. Head held high, not knowing what he goes to, Truman declines and exits the stage, giving the show its unintentionally perfect finale and giving the film a suitable and iconic conclusion.
What was once a slick and clever satire transcends numerous fields of excellence to become something truly special in these final moments. Fusing philosophy and social commentary to good old fashioned man against the world and uncovering the conspiracy tropes of movie thrillers, The Truman Show is in retrospect and absolute giant of its field. Weir’s direction is sensational and Niccol’s script wonderful in creating a technically superb experience, but the film owes its greatest debt to the final piece in the jigsaw; the truly inspired casting of Carrey. A supporting cast that sees fantastic work from Harris, McElhone, Linney, Emmerich, Holland Taylor and all others on show helps set the stage, and while 1998 was the year the rubber faced comic dynamo Carrey broke into more serious avenues, The Truman Show represents his greatest hour.
The natural showmanship that made Carrey a household name through Ace Ventura, Liar Liar and The Mask is exploited to make Truman an understandably watchable presence on his show, but Carrey displays a range of emotional acting nobody, including this writer, knew he possessed to pull of the serious stuff. Vulnerability, lovelorn, tormented and finally, in exhausted fashion, dented but hopeful resolve. Always objectively a huge presence on screen, Carrey is not just mesmeric in this; he is compelling, meaning that the personality of a character whose actions were always paramount is as memorable as the satire. When we see him draped over the wheel of his boat, soaked to the skin and virtually destroyed by his battle, it is impossible to hold back the tears. Truman Burbank is one of film’s greatest characters, and this is all down to Carrey.
That great eternal question ‘What if none of this is real?’ is the nucleus for a film that, with every single element going in is favor, not only overcomes the ambition of its high concept hubris but turns it into something so much more immersive and satisfying than mere philosophical musings. A triumph for Weir, Niccol and Carrey, The Truman Show is truly a cinematic great. Now, let’s see what else is on…where’s the TV Guide?