The Truman Show
The film begins with an intense Christof, the film’s director, explaining his current project: a pseudo-documentary that follows the life of its subject, a man named Truman Burbank, as he goes about his daily existence, unaware that his world is completely manufactured for television and that his every move is watched by millions around the world. Christof is clearly extremely proud and possessive of his creation, and we immediately get the sense that if he hasn’t completely ignored any internal conflict over the morality of the show, then he has at least made peace with it.
Our introduction to Truman himself begins with his morning routine: he gets ready for work and exits his house onto a street that is immaculately manicured, and has the well-dressed and respectable neighbours to match. There is an overbearing sense of utopia to this scene: the pastel colours of the buildings, the perfectly green grass, and the impossibly blue sky are all meant to evoke the idea of the perfect suburban world, a concept that has its origins in early-Cold War imaginations of capitalism and consumerism. The idea that is essentially being put forward is that this world could be yours if you have the money for it.
Truman’s morning routine is interrupted as one of the light installations from the top of the dome that is his world falls from the sky and crashes into the ground nearby. This obviously captures his attention, and he evidently ponders over it on his way to work – communicated through facial expressions we see up close as a result of the hidden cameras through which we experience a majority of the film – until the man on the radio states that there has been reports of equipment falling from a plane over the town, seemingly explaining the incident away.
At work, it is revealed that Truman has secretly been planning to visit Fiji to find a woman named Lauren or Sylvia. Obviously, Truman cannot be let to attempt to leave the town, for he would quickly discover it is not a town at all. As such, Christof and the producers have manufactured certain phobias that paralyse Truman and prevent him from getting too adventurous. For example, he has memories of being lost at sea with his father, before his father was thrown overboard by the storm. As a consequence of this traumatic memory, Truman is deathly afraid of the water.
Truman attempts to cross the bridge to Wells Island, but his aforementioned fear of water prevents him from doing so, and he instead sits on the beach with his best friend Marlon. There, Truman discloses his desire to travel to Fiji. It is then that the actual flashback to the drowning occurs.
The next day, Truman, while out in town, runs into a homeless man who bears striking resemblance to his father. Stunned, Truman attempts to pursue him through the streets, but the production crew snap into action and set off a sequence of obstacles that allows the actor to be escorted away without the truth being compromised. This experience leaves Truman rattled, and marks the beginning of his awareness of the true nature of his existence and reality.
His fantasies about escaping to Fiji become more intense. During a flashback to his teenage years, we see Truman meet Lauren, who is played by the actress Sylvia. As the couple is walking along a beach, they kiss, and Lauren tells Truman that her real name is Sylvia, and that his life is a lie: she reveals to him that he is living in a television show. This incident resulted in Lauren being removed from the show, with her absence being explained to Truman as that she decided to move to Fiji.
While driving to work the next day, a technological glitch results in the communications between the actors and producers being broadcast to Truman’s car radio. He hears people discussing his exact movements, which again spikes his suspicions about his reality. By now, he is aware that the entire world seems to move around him. To test his theory, he takes a different route to work, and when he attempts to use an elevator in a building, is surprised to find that it is not real.
When Truman tries to speak with Marlon about his findings, Marlon dismisses them as nonsense. Desperate to find someone he can confide in, Truman next tries to speak with his wife, Meryl, even though he is not particularly close with her, as he is still truly in love with Lauren. In light of recent events, Truman has grown to suspect that Meryl herself is part of the façade. He chases her to the hospital where she works, where they accidentally interrupt a surgery. In an effort not to ruin the façade, the actors playing the doctors are forced to amputate the actor who is playing the patient’s leg without anaesthetic.
Truman next forces Meryl to go on a drive with him. He finally works up the courage to drive over the bridge but is stopped shortly after by an apparent disaster at a nearby nuclear power plant that has forced a road closure. Truman’s suspicions are confirmed when a policeman he does not know says “You’re welcome Truman.” He tries to escape but is returned home.
The situation between Meryl and Truman deteriorates rapidly at home, where Meryl desperately tries to calm Truman down by offering him hot chocolate. She presents it to him as an advertisement, which stuns Truman, and he lashes out at her. Truman takes his wife hostage, but Marlon arrives just in time and defuses the situation.
Marlon takes Truman to the bridge for a heartfelt conversation and a beer. Kirk (Truman’s pretend father) appears, and the father and son are reunited. It is a touching moment, and the camera shifts to reveal the behind-the-scenes production, where Christof, in an interview, reveals that Truman has been the subject of this program for twenty-nine years. Sylvia (the actress who played Lauren) calls in to the interview and criticises Christof for exploiting Truman against his will, claiming the show was inhumane.
Truman has begun sleeping in his basement. One night, Christof becomes suspicious, and notices that Truman has set up a decoy in the sleeping bag and has actually escaped into the night. A search party is activated. In his desperation, Christof turns on the sun in the middle of the night, to show Truman sailing in the middle of the ocean. Christof orders a storm to destroy Truman’s boat, and the world watches on intently. The storm subsides and Truman’s boat reaches the edge of the dome. He gets out and walks up a set of stairs, at the top of which is a sign that reads “EXIT.” Christof briefly attempts to persuade him to stay in the dome, but Truman’s mind is already made up.
Truman opens the door, beyond which is a black nothingness, turns to face the camera, says “In case I don’t see ya … good afternoon, good evening, and good night” and leaves into the world beyond. The audience cheers and finds something else to watch.
The Truman Show is a product of the postmodernist movement that invaded culture, art and literature from the mid twentieth century onwards. In essence, postmodernism is a rejection of the structures and conventions that traditionally underpinned art, leading to a blurring of the very definition of “art” and thus opening up more possibilities and opportunities for people to express themselves. To make things even more complicated, at the core of postmodernism is a rejection of the idea of “meaning” itself. Hence, much postmodernist art and literature deals with or reflects the absence of order, but also tackles more existential or spiritual themes such as atheism or the ‘death of God.’
The emergence of postmodernism was shaped by social, political and cultural developments in the latter half of the twentieth century. Most significantly, the Cold War and the existential threat it posed effectively made people question the meaning of life and the structures they placed so much faith in if, after all, it could all disappear in the blink of an eye. With the decline of tensions in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Western world believed it had inherited a period of utopia: capitalism and democracy had triumphed over communism, and the image of America – think neat suburban streets, painted fences, well-dressed neighbours – gradually became subsumed by media and advertising, which in the 1990s concerned itself excessively with promoting the idea of a perfect world that could only be found in America.
Accordingly, during this time media and advertising proliferated massively, offering access to new forms of entertainment that in turn changed peoples’ viewing habits and lifestyles more broadly. For the first time ever, entertainment was only a button away, and the leaders of the industry were desperate to find new shows or plotlines that would grasp the public’s attention. Luckily for them, they had a public that was more than willing to see what they could come up with next, leading to collective obsessions with reality tv shows in the 90s such as COPS and similar productions.
The impact of the ubiquity of the media in modern life
The film is a comment on the proliferation and expansiveness of media in the modern age. Released in 1998, Weir was reflecting on the rise of shows such as The Jerry Springer Show and COPS, which made drama and entertainment out of people’s ordinary experiences. Specifically, events that should be private or addressed in a sensitive manner were mass-marketed for the purpose of capturing audiences’ attention. So throughout his film, Weir places his audience in the position of an objective viewer, who has access to both the subject and the in-world audience, so that we may see more clearly the truly harmful impacts of mass media on our ability to recognise others’ humanity.
The human desire for freedom, understanding and truth
At its core, The Truman Show is an exploration of mankind’s restlessness in its search for truth. Though surrounded by comfort and certainty, it is those very things that push Truman to see if there is indeed more to life than the shores of Seahaven. He is never satisfied nor scared by what he might uncover. In fact, each challenge he is confronted by, no matter how immense, only strengthens his resolve. The final scene of the film is overlaid with Christian imagery, which actually present from the film’s outset (Christof is obviously a God-like figure). With regard to the final scene, Truman’s act of ascending the stairs into the clouds, before stepping out into the great unknown, evokes Christian notions of ascension into paradise, that is only made possible by discovering and accepting great truths.
The artificiality of commercialism
The artificiality and hollowness of commercialism is explored constantly throughout the film. While the perfectly produced sets and costumed actors are intended to conjure a vision of a perfect world, founded upon commercialist tendencies, when considered alongside the fact that Truman’s world is artificial and manufactured, we see the bigger point to be that Weir is actually highlighting the extent to which commercialism is inherently one-dimensional in nature. The pervasiveness of commercialism is made clear through the repeated instances throughout the film in which characters interact with Truman in strange ways, but which are really intended to advertise products. Both the pervasiveness and artificiality of commercialism is made particularly evident in scenes where Truman is attempting to have an emotional conversation with those close to him, such as Marlon, but we are distracted from the contents of Truman’s speech by the almost irritating visual imagery of product placement.
The human need for authentic relationships
It is ultimately Truman’s lack of authentic relationships that pushes the plot forward. He has everything except real relationships. The loss of his father and disappearance of his former lover only makes the issue of authentic relationship-building more urgent for Truman. In this way, the film once more critiques the emptiness of commercialism, insofar as it is shown that it cannot sufficiently compensate for authentic human experiences or issues such as relationships.