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These days, in most cities and towns, avoiding being filmed is next to impossible. We are so used to it now, that we rarely give it a second thought. CCTV cameras line every street, shop and restaurant recording us from every angle. We could probably make a movie about our lives just by going outside. For Truman Burbank though, someone already is.
Chosen before he was even born, Truman (Jim Carrey) was selected as the first 24-hour a day star of a TV reality show, creatively named The Truman Show. The brainchild of eccentric film maker Christof (Ed Harris), the show is an international phenomenon and been on the air for 30 years, documenting every aspect of the man’s life. And what life he’s had. Or rather not had. Christof has carefully orchestrated the world Truman has been living in, guiding the young impressionable mind as a child to remain content with his neighborhood and fearful of the world beyond. That included “killing” his father in a boating accident, an incident so traumatic, Truman can’t go near the water.
There are other things that stand out for us, but less so for a man who’s grown up in a sanitized near perfectly planned environment, which is the largest set in television history. Everyone in Seahaven (the community Truman lives in) is an actor and they are all in on the con. Truman is married to the wholesome Meryl (Laura Linney), who is eternally chirpy and always within reach of a product to suggest they try, making sure the label and name are clearly visible for the watching audience. This is one of the film’s major conceits, that Truman is the spectacle but we are consumers.
Like anyone, things nag at us, and for Truman it is the same. But lately, things have become increasingly curious. A large studio light falls from the sky and crashes on the road in front of Truman. It’s quickly covered up by a radio broadcast talking about an aircraft in trouble, which also helps maintain the fear of flying already implanted in his mind. But not long after, driving into work, the radio catches static and then the show’s crew tracking Truman’s movements as he approaches. But most troublesome for Truman is Lauren (Natascha McElhone). Lauren, played by Sylvia in the film’s story is the love that he was denied. An extra on set, Lauren was never meant to be a regular. From the start, Meryl was cast as the love interest, but this is the thing about love, right? It doesn’t come from casting. It comes naturally, and Lauren overwhelms Truman. Sylvia, though is not happy about Truman’s life and is a member of the “Free Truman” movement which aims to stop the show and the cruelty of the lie. Christof has her removed from the set, forcing her to tell Truman her family is moving to Fiji. Truman marries Meryl and life goes on, but secretly, he can’t stop thinking of his one true love. In one of the more revealing moments of the film, we watch as he hides away in the basement thumbing through magazines with pictures of women, cutting out a mouth here, some eyes there and so on. It seems arbitrary at first, and maybe even deviant for a short time until we see that Truman is actually trying to remember Lauren’s face, and is building her piece by piece with the parts of other women. It’s heartbreaking.
The film follows an expected path, as it should. Truman must discover his situation and then find a way to be free of it. Without that, the story has no meaning. But what’s impressive about this narrative is the way it makes the viewer consider the world beyond the one in the movie. What does it mean to be a star? Not long ago, it took a lot to be famous. Actors, musicians, politicians and criminals; these were the rare persons that found fame, for good or bad. These days, with reality TV, YouTube, the Internet and social networking, going “viral” and more can make anyone famous. Director Peter Weir was keenly aware of this years before many of these practices were even available, and the enormous dome that houses Seahaven and Truman could easily be the metaphor of the fish bowl we all live in.
That’s the thing about The Truman Show. It raises questions. The film is a comedy at heart and has its objectives to reach, so does not go to places that would make this a truly defining film. Meryl, for instance, as the girlfriend first and eventually the wife. How far does she, as a hired actress, go to play the part? Do she and Truman have sex? How private is Truman’s life? How much will a television audience want to see? Exploring these and more would have taken The Truman Show in a different direction, naturally, but since they are never addressed beyond a disgruntled viewer complaining they just cut to black when they have sex, it seems like a lost opportunity, and kind of a cheat.
That’s is not to say the movie lacks depth, because that would be a mistake. Both Christof and Truman are exceptionally rich characters and Ed Harris and Jim Carrey are well-cast. Harris is not a cold person, but the show is a product and the ratings are the heart. Without Truman, his world collapses, an empire he’s built for thirty years. Likewise, Truman is a child, no matter his age. His experiences are real to him, but they are aseptic, manufactured, free of conflict. There is a palpable father/son relationship in their design, but more like a god and a subject just beginning to question its existence.
Weir’s bigger message may be directed at the viewer, and one perhaps lost in the art of the film’s presentation. How closely do we really know our own world? How much do we take for granted? Life is a continuous stream of peripheral activity that goes invariably unchecked. How much of it should we question? Truman starts to see oddities, and because he doesn’t know anything but what he’s been presented, his questions are weak and with no frame of reference. Imagine that it began to rain only on you and nobody else. What do you think it could mean? A miracle perhaps? This is a dilemma Truman must face.
And this is really all about him. Truman is a wonderful character. He’s honest, sensitive, inquisitive, and because we know his situation, he’s also sympathetic. We want to see him win. There is tremendous joy in watching his discovery. Throughout the movie, we see the audience of the show and given a glimpse into how Truman has impacted many personally. Some wear buttons and have posters that read, “How’s it going end?” We may think we get an answer to that question when the time comes, but in truth, that answer is not so clear. Where is Truman now?
Scene Setup: For some time, Truman has become increasingly suspicious of his surroundings. From the theatrical light that fell from the sky and landed in his street to the way his friends and neighbors treat him, he suspects there is something very strange about his life in Sea Haven. He notices that everywhere he goes, everything seems to depend on him. Strangers know his name, he hears voices on his car radio keeping track of his progress, and sometimes when it rains, it rains only on him. While conditioned from childhood to fear leaving Sea Haven, he eventually gains the courage and takes his wife Meryl in an attempt to leave but is met with one obstacle after another, including a forest fire and a nuclear power plant accident. He his finally forced to go back. Meryl, scripted throughout their relationship, is growing ever stressed by Truman’s new adventurous attitude. She has been told to try and get him to have a baby with her.
The Moment: Truman is at a breaking point, becoming further paranoid as each day passes. In the kitchen, while slumped in a chair, he confronts Meryl, asking her why she would possibly want to have children. He states that he knows she can’t stand him. As she searches for a way to handle this sudden situation, reaches for a container of Mococa chocolate drink and talks to him like she is in a TV commercial, which technically, she is. This rattles Truman, further confusing him and getting him agitated enough to rise up and shout at her to tell him what is happening. This so startles her, she picks up a vegetable slicer and brandishes it like a weapon, telling him he is scaring her. He echoes the sentiment and then grabs her, prompting her to shout out for help, saying ,”Do something!”
The phrase startles him and he demands she explain herself, but she denies saying anything and runs for the door where a sudden knock disrupts them. In pops Marlon (Noah Emmerich), Truman’s best friend since school, holding a six-pack of beer, obviously sent to intervene, though he convinces Truman otherwise.
The scene marks the moment when it’s clear that the production is too small to contain Truman. The efforts to keep him isolated in the bubble are failing steady under the the curiosity that fuels the adult Truman. We see the two leads in the Truman TV show drifting from their assigned parts, with Meryl, who is in on the project of course, under the most stress, having to be a partner to her co-star 24 hours a day, even, though never shown or spoken of beyond talk of having a baby, submitting to a sexual relationship. Not trained or equipped to deal with the growing emotional scarring the effects of all of this is having on Truman, she steadily crumbles, and after this incident is actually removed from the cast.
Then there is Truman. Carrey is at his best in this scene as he plays it straight and we feel the weight of incredible confusion, sweeping despair, and even some fear as his world becomes more and more irrational. Desperate for answers, he grasps at the one person who has been a constant for him, even though she is acting as absurdly as ever. He senses her loathing contempt for him, which is hard for him to understand, but seeing through her transparent smiles and giddy facade. He can’t possible put together the truth behind it all, so spins in bewilderment with each passing word. Her unintentional revelation that there is something or someone nearby that can help her is like a splash of ice water. Paranoia consumes him, sending him scheming. From here, Christof and the production scramble to stay one step ahead of their subject, and for the first time, have no control over the creation they made.