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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Truman Show (1998)



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This is not a Jim Carrey film. This is a Peter Weir film. When encouraging my non-Carrey-fan friends to see the movie, this seems to be the point I make the most. This is about as far from Carrey's usual slapstick farces as you can get.

Director Peter Weir has crafted an intelligent, thought-provoking satire about the media and the unseemly extent to which it controls our lives. What we see, what we hear, even what we feel is, more than we'd like to think, a product of what the media feeds us for information. The Truman Show takes what is on the surface a preposterous situation but really a logical extension of the present undesirable situation, and it explores the kind of ramifications that situation has on both its allies and its victims. Yet this is also a comedy and a very well done one at that. Like all great narrative works, it can be experienced on different levels -- it can be enjoyed as a light and funny if bizarre comedy, and it can be scrutinized as a study of humanity, voyeurism, and the media. In fact, the insight of its statement on voyeurism recalls Rear Window, and the depth of its statement on the media recalls Network. While The Truman Show isn't as masterful as either of these two classics, I admire the ingeniousness with which director Peter Weir explores both subjects as one.

If you are unaware of the basic premise of The Truman Show, do not read further, and don't read any other reviews or critiques or plot synopses about the movie either -- just go see it. The rest of the review discusses elements of the plot best discovered through the viewing of the film.

The premise of the movie is, as you know if you are still reading, that Truman Burbank lives in the largest television set ever constructed. Equipped with thousands of hidden cameras, Truman's life -- since birth and unbeknownst to him -- has been broadcast on an immensely popular 24-hour television program. His wife, his best friend, the people he meets on the street -- they're all actors, hired to play roles in his life. What kind of mentality does it take to make a life-long career of playing a role in someone's life that, to him, is real? We see glimpses of his hired wife's real personality, and the rigid professionalism with which she treats her work is discomforting at best. We don't see much of his best friend's life outside the show, but, in a particularly chilling moment where we realize where his "heartfelt" words of comfort come from, we are given enough to use our imaginations.

The director of the show is Ed Harris, who doesn't appear in the movie for quite some time, after we discover the secret of the film one step ahead of Truman (a step ahead so we know what to watch for in his character, but only one step ahead, so we experience the stunning realization ourselves, too). I appreciated how the director was portrayed -- not just by Harris' great performance, but by the aura of power the movie shrouds about him. When he first speaks to Truman, from the heights of the skies, and says, "I am the creator of a television show," I thought he lingered after the word "creator" as if he liked the way the sentence sounded had it ended there. Maybe I'm wrong, and my imagination sparked that interpretation -- but even then, I would credit the movie for inspiring it. Directors are, or at least would like to be, the masters of their domains. Harris' character had the largest domain of all: what was, for one person, the full extent of reality.

What seems a minor cosmetic element to the movie but which, in reality, adds a whole new dimension to it is the brief cuts from Truman to assorted members of his television audience. A crowd of people in a bar. A man in a bathtub. Two old ladies on a sofa. What was disconcerting to me, but which I realized with some delight made perfect sense, was the distanced way in which the viewers watched. It's their favorite show. They watch it constantly. But it's just a show. Although they know full well Truman isn't aware his life is being broadcast all over the country, they fail to understand the ramifications of what that means. It strengthens the movie's stance on the intrusiveness of the media. He shouldn't have married Meryl on the rebound, one viewer thinks, discussing an event in Truman's life as if it were a scripted event in a different show that didn't involve the manipulation of someone's real, actual life. After what is undoubtedly the single most momentual event in Truman's life transpires, one viewer mumbles something to another that, while funny, also betrays the sheer lack of human understanding of the show's viewers. They're pawns of the media, enjoying the show because it's on, and it has a neat "gimmick" that one of the cast members is real.

Yet, as I say, the intellectual content of The Truman Show is not on the surface but just beneath it. Like the best movies with substance, they can be viewed and enjoyed as pure entertainment -- in this case, a lighthearted, whimsical comedy with laughs and innovation twined as one. Watch it that way, and think about what the movie has to say afterward.