Movie Mondays: ‘The Truman Show’

The Truman Show (1998) © Paramount Pictures

Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) follows the life of Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who has been blissfully ignorant that his every move has been broadcast to an audience of millions around the globe for his whole life. He lives in the picturesque town of Seahaven, with a wife, friends, a car, and a job he enjoys. Everything is perfect. That is, until things around the set start to get weird, and finally, Truman starts to realise that his life is not what it seems. 

I first watched The Truman Show when I was fifteen—almost ten years ago now. Quite honestly, I couldn’t understand it at first. It was subtly complex in a way that I couldn’t wrap my head around. Now, as a writer and creator, and old enough to appreciate nuance, I can see it for the marvel of filmmaking that it is. A journey of self-discovery, free will, rebellion against manipulation, and how the media can shape or shatter our world, it’s a timeless classic.

The film itself is ingenious, perhaps most in its littlest details. For example, Truman always listens to classical music in his car. This is likely because classical music is in the public domain, so the producers wouldn’t run into any copyright snafus in using it on the show. Another clever detail is the set light which crashes to the ground in front of Truman and marks a pivotal turning point in Truman’s life, as he begins to question the world around him. The light displays the name label Sirius, a reference to the real Sirius the Dog Star of the Canis Major constellation, the brightest star in the sky. The implication here is that all of the set lights in the sky are named similarly after real stars, in the producers’ attempts to keep Seahaven as ‘real’ as possible.

One of my favourite details is the Vitamin D supplements that Truman takes. Obviously, he gets no natural sunlight, as the only light on set comes from the controlled hands of stage production. Every faction of the world is controlled—it’s when the real world begins to bleed in that Truman begins to question things. 

Society through the lens of the media is a key element of The Truman Show. Though the film was released in 1998, before the Internet and social media took off, its relevance today has never been more profound. We live in an age of avid, uncontrollable obsession. We haven’t learned the lesson that The Truman Show teaches us, that consumption of a person’s every waking moment is more damaging than we realise. We likely never will.

The film’s idea of perfection being linked to artifice is, to me, reminiscent of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie (2023). In this film, the more self-aware Barbie becomes, the less appealing Barbieland, in all of its perfection, is. By the end, her newfound self-awareness means that nothing can be the same for her anymore, and she’s okay with that. So is Truman—when faced with whether to stay in the safety of Seahaven or venture into the unknown, the choice is an easy one. How can he go back, knowing what he knows? What choice is there, but to step forward?

The Truman Show (1998) © Paramount Pictures

The Truman Show and Barbie both present interesting decision-vessels in the forms of Christof, the show’s producer, and Ruth Handler, Barbie’s creator. Both of these characters are responsible for who Truman and Barbie are at the start of their journeys, but neither can take credit for the end results. It’s akin to parenthood, in that sense. Our parents give us life, and the tools to learn and grow, but what we become is determined only by ourselves. Our creations, our achievements. It’s up to us what we do with the tools we’re given.

The Truman Show is at its best in its final act. The world watches, gripped, as Truman flees Seahaven, desperate for a way out of the fabrication and illusion. Whether the audience realises that this isn’t part of the show is irrelevant. As he realises the truth, Truman’s life no longer belongs to them. It is true that we are the main characters in our own stories. It’s inevitable. The human ability to be hyper-aware of this fact that can feed our egocentricity—can keep our boats sailing along until, eventually, we hit the edge of our own painting.

The Truman Show (1998) © Paramount Pictures

 When Truman takes his final bow and leaves the fake world behind in favour of the real world, he’s opting into the human experience. He chooses the potential for pain and danger over the sheltered, solitary existence that had been all he’d ever known. When he signs off with his signature phrase, “in case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening, and good night”, he is doing so with complete autonomy for the first time. For the first time in almost 30 years, the audience knows that they won’t see him. It’s newfound uncertainty. It’s a creation leaving its perfect environment with free will and no idea what comes next, and it’s that part, vitally, that is the crux of human experience. Life is unscripted. It’s the beauty of the unknown that makes us who we are.

Words by Liv Thomson

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