The notion of discovering that your life is a lie—that everything you've seen and known is false—is such a powerful one that it has been used in countless stories and movies. From The Wizard of Oz (1939) to The Matrix (1999), we've seen characters awaken only to learn that what they have been experiencing was all a dream or an illusion. Usually these stories are about the experiences of its protagonist. Donnie Darko (2001) or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) are about characters who, by chance or by choice, have become disconnected from the world. Sometimes these stories are not science fiction or fantasy at all, but the stuff of thrillers. Movies like The Lady Vanishes (1938) or Gaslight (1944) have characters whom, for various reasons, people are trying to trick into believing that what they know to be true is really false or vice versa. Even the notion of one's life being a work of fiction in someone else's reality has been done more than once, from Paul Bartel's classic short The Secret Cinema (1968) to the strained Will Ferrell comedy Stranger than Fiction (2006).
So there's nothing new under the sun. Why, then, did The Truman Show strike such a chord in 1998, and why does the film still seem brilliant a decade later? I can still recall sitting at the press screening for the movie—oddly, shown a few months rather than few days before the opening, as if they knew we would need time to digest it—and thinking I had just seen what was likely one of the best films of the year. Although it was only March, my judgment stood and I easily placed it on my year's end ten best list. What impressed me then and impresses me now is just how complex a film it is.
As noted, typically such stories focus on the protagonist. Yet while Truman (Jim Carrey) is clearly one of our concerns here, his situation and reactions are not the only thing on the film's agenda. There are at least three viewpoints the film wants us to consider in telling its story of a man whose whole life is a lie, and his is only one of them.
A corporation has adopted baby Truman while he is in utero, and his entire life has been turned into a reality television show. Of course, "reality" is a misnomer, just as it is with Survivor and American Idol, in that there is some manipulation planned behind the scenes determining what occurs on camera. One of the things the film explores is how much of an effort must be put into creating the illusion of reality that Truman experiences as his daily life. It's not a supercomputer or a dream or drugs. No, it's a vast conspiracy involving literally hundreds of people. They include the actors playing everyone from his parents to his best friend to his neighbors to his wife. They include the behind-the-scenes workers who monitor his every move and ensure that nothing happens to Truman that might break the illusion. That involves quickly responding to the inevitable glitches—like protestors sneaking onto the "set"—so that Truman doesn't get wise to his situation. Most important of all, the conspiracy of running Truman's life is headed by Christof (Ed Harris), the creator of the show, who is the mastermind controlling every aspect of the project.
For Truman, the story of the movie is about discovering the truth of his existence. It begins in small ways, as a klieg light unexpectedly crashes in front of his house, and then his car radio unexpectedly picks up chatter from the show's control room. Slowly he begins to see beyond the charade, and comes to understand that his whole life has been a fraud. There can only be one way for this story to have a happy ending, and that is for Truman to break free. He does so in a completely satisfying way, allowing us to feel that the human spirit is indomitable.
Yet Andrew Niccol's script—directed by Peter Weir—gives us two other perspectives that are not so happy, and not so reassuring. Christof, brilliantly played by Harris, is the creator of a TV show who has gotten to experience what it's like to be Creator of the Universe. So far as Truman is concerned, Christof (with his not-so-subtle name) is God. Christof has determined every facet of his life, and pulled the strings to get the results he wanted. To ensure that Truman won't want to travel, he gives him a fear of water caused by the drowning of his father in a boating accident. When the actor playing the father unexpectedly shows up, Christof has to figure out how write the "dead" father's return into the script.
Many an author or director has felt godlike in creating a fictional world, but Christof has gotten to take it much further. He can make the "sun" shine at night. He can call a storm upon a calm sea. When he addresses Truman at the end of the film, he is a disembodied voice speaking from the sky. Truman's rejection of this "god" who promises to take care of him and to protect him in ways that the real world can't might seem like a statement of atheism, and it certainly can be read that way. However, it might also be read as a rejection of the false god represented by Christof, a man who has robbed Truman of his free will.
Throughout the story Christof has decided what Truman must do and then arranged things accordingly. When he falls in love with Lauren (Natascha McElhone) instead of Meryl (Laura Linney), cast for the role of Truman's college sweetheart, Lauren is physically removed from the show. Truman is told her family has moved to Tahiti. However, while Truman dutifully falls in love with Meryl, he keeps trying to put together a composite picture of Lauren's face so he won't forget her.
The Truman Show verges on a theological debate between the forces of predestination, led by Christof, and the notion of free will, expressed by Truman's desire to think and act for himself. The woman who "played" Lauren protests Truman's enslavement regardless of how nice his prison may be. She wears a button that reads, "How's it going to end?" The logical implication of The Truman Show is that if Christof has his way, the cameras will follow Truman to the grave without him ever being aware that his entire life has been a hoax.
As if that weren't enough, the film also critiques us in the audience, the consumers of "reality" TV fare. In many ways it's the most cartoonish aspect of the film. We keep returning to the same people, including a man who, improbably, spends all his time in the bathtub. However what we see is that for fans of the show it has become a vicarious life. Truman's day-to-day existence is nothing out of the ordinary: he goes to work, greets neighbors and colleagues, visits his mother. Yet for the viewers even this is preferable to their own apparently mundane lives where what they share with each other is their concern for Truman. Of course, since this is television, the film acknowledges concerns for ratings and keeping advertisers happy. When Truman escapes and Christof orders a "technical difficulties" card put up on screen, he wryly notes that the card is getting even higher ratings than they usually do. This separate track of the lives of the viewers makes this distinct from similar stories, and leads to the devastating closing line of the film where we see that the passive audience may cheer Truman's moment of liberation but seems to have learned nothing from the experience.
Not presented or sold as a science fiction film per se, The Truman Show is one of the very best modern examples of the genre, providing plenty of food for thought while keeping us entertained with its creative variation of a recurring premise. After watching The Truman Show, it's hard to look at our TV sets—