‘The Truman Show’ at 25 – Review

The Truman Show (1998)
Director: Peter Weir
Screenwriter: Andrew Niccol
Starring: Jim Carey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, Brian Delate, Paul Giamatti, Harry Shearer, Philip Baker Hall

A year before the original Dutch ‘Big Brother’ series kickstarted the reality television craze and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix made us question reality in the form of a spectacular blockbuster, screenwriter Andrew Niccol and director Peter Weir created The Truman Show. A quarter of a century on, how does this scarily prescient skewering of the late-90s entertainment industry play to an always-online world?

Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives a content if unremarkable existence in an idyllic suburb until strange occurrences make him think that nothing is as it seems. In reality, Truman was adopted as a baby by a television corporation and raised in a simulated environment, his every moment documented for 30 years for the entertainment of the viewing public all without his knowledge. Just how far will his TV captors go to keep him from finding the truth and to keep ‘The Truman Show’ on the air?

The film opens with maverick visual artist Christof (Ed Harris) talking to camera and setting out the premise of his most ambitious project to date, the project we’re about to watch:

“We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. We’re tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is in some respects counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards; it isn’t always Shakespeare but it’s genuine. It’s a life.”

We then get introduced to our protagonist Truman’s unchanging daily routine – getting dressed, saying good morning to the nice couple across the street, being scared by the neighbour’s dog, buying a paper and a fashion magazine “for the wife”, working a boring job in insurance, shooting the breeze with his bestie over cold beers.

This soap opera world has even given Truman catchphrases without him realising it (“Good morning, and in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and good night!”) and nothing is truly his own. Before long, cracks in Truman’s reality begin to show. A studio light falls in front of him seemingly from outer space, his car radio momentarily tunes into a channel that sounds an awful lot like it is surveilling his every movement, and he starts to notice that his wife Meryl (Laura Linney) is advertising the products in their home out loud to an unseen audience.

The cast making up the TV ensemble may be the film’s secret weapon; all performing their well-rehearsed parts dutifully to maintain Truman’s illusion, but many of them, particularly his friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich), seemingly on the verge of telling him what is really going on as they see just how much pain and torment he is being put through. 

The film throws up some fascinating points of debate around consent. Clearly Truman has never consented to his one and only life becoming entertainment for others, and the cast surrounding him are expected to go above and beyond any normal acting job – if they’re not living in this fake neighbourhood full-time then they must be available to re-enter it at a moment’s notice so as to not break the spell (in Marlon’s case, always with a pack of beer in hand). We have to ask whether Meryl’s fake relationship with Truman, that apparently involves a normal amount of marital sex (“you never see anything” one viewer comments), could be considered prostitution, just another thing she’s paid to do as part of her contract. The actual mechanics of all this is possibly one of the film’s only slight drawbacks – it doesn’t hold to in-depth scrutiny of its logic and mechanics. 

Christof may be one of the coldest and cruellest film antagonists out there, trapping a real man in a fake world for the sake of his must-see TV show, but he may argue with twisted logic that his robbing of Truman of his free will is protecting him from the unpredictability and danger of the real world. Truman may not be getting the full life experience but he is relatively safe in his little bubble.

The original film concept for Truman’s world was a more science fiction take on a large city like New York and was therefore prohibitively expensive, but it’s for the film’s betterment that they went for a Norman Rockwell 1950s perfect suburbia. Since the work of David Lynch and his usual aesthetic has become so recognisable, many of us automatically associate the white picket fences, immaculate green lawns, and smiling, well turned-out couples with something sinister lying just below the surface.

The film’s influence is almost incalculable. Not just direct references to it in movies in the years since, but even on psychology; “Truman Syndrome”, where someone has the unshakeable delusion that their life is a fiction manipulated by others, is now a real and diagnosable thing. Christof states that “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented”. Many sci-fi writers – Philip K Dick, Ira Levin, Michael Crichton – have based their popular stories around the concept of simulating entire worlds, and the media we consume has taught us to be aware of fakery and perhaps pay too much attention to elaborate conspiracy theories. 

On balance, this is probably Jim Carrey’s finest performance. He gets to goof off as a stereotypical quirky sitcom protagonist and then become increasingly unhinged as Truman starts to lose a grip on his reality, but there’s an innate tragedy to his character who has never really been allowed to live. His inevitably painful journey to the truth results in Carrey’s strongest dramatic turn alongside Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We love Truman just as his in-world audience does, and we want him to be happy and for him to succeed even if it means saying goodbye as he joins the throng of the real world. 

24/7 entertainment that was only just becoming available when The Truman Show debuted in 1998 is now commonplace and expected by audiences, with reality television and semi-scripted “simulated reality” TV obsessively being watched around the world. Who knows whether it would have taken off to such an extent without the one-two-punch of ‘Big Brother’ and Peter Weir’s film. Even divorced from its titanic cultural influence, The Truman Show remains a meticulously crafted, stylistically subversive and powerful tragicomedy about what it means to live. 

Score: 22/24


  • <cite class="fn">Kieran</cite>

    You know what? I’ll agree with the score here. Certainly better than Sam’s usual six.

Leave a Comment