Judge Joel Pearce urges you to run out and buy this critique of American consumerism and media culture.
Our review of The Truman Show (Blu-Ray), published December 23rd, 2008, is also available.
"We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented, it's as simple as that."—Cristof
Having worked at video stores for around six years now, I have amassed quite a large collection of posters. My posters are rotated quite often, replaced by cool new ones, often grouped to fit a theme. The only one that has remained in place through this whole time is The Truman Show. There's something about this film that I find particularly moving, and that hasn't changed since the first time I saw it. This new special edition gives me the chance to explore why The Truman Show has a place so close to my heart, and a chance to see whether it still holds up after all the changes in television programming since its release.
Facts of the Case
Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) lives a charmed life. He has a nice house in a wonderful little town, a beautiful wife, Meryl (Laura Linney, Mystic River), and is surrounded by plenty of shiny new things. He has a decent job, a good buddy named Marlon (Noah Emmerich, Windtalkers), and seems on the surface to be living the American Dream.
But something doesn't feel right. A series of odd coincidences has left Truman a bit paranoid. He is secretly seeking out a woman from his past named Sylvia (Natascha McElhone, Ronin) and feeling a pull towards a new life with more adventure.
Little does Truman know that he has no secrets, and that any attempt to leave the town of Seahaven will meet with failure. He is the unknowing star of a television show, living in a massive studio with his entire life broadcast to the world. His entire world is created and controlled by reclusive director Cristof (Ed Harris, The Hours), who has no idea that Truman is about to learn the truth about his life.
Note: over the course of this review, The Truman Show refers to the film, while The Truman Show refers to the television show within the film.
The Truman Show is deceptively complex, making a number of statements about the entertainment industry and society in general. The way that director Peter Weir (Witness) blends these statements into a delightful, light, funny, thoughtful film is what makes it a masterpiece. As few will be reading this before watching the film, there will be some spoilers in the review. If you haven't yet seen the film, hurry up and watch it. You're missing out.
With the rapid growth of so-called reality television over the past few years, The Truman Show is even more relevant now than when it was released. It offers a playful deconstruction of our tendency to confuse reality and media-presented fiction. For its audience, The Truman Show promises reality. His life has a truth that they can't find anywhere else on television. He is not an actor, there are no sets, there are no scripts. At the beginning, Cristof claims that people love the show because it is reality, and that ordinary television can never reach people the same way. The only problem is that the audience has been fooled just as much as Truman. Seahaven is no more real than the set of any other show. The illusion of reality has only been created on a much larger scale. Each moment is carefully crafted. The behavior of other characters is tightly choreographed, and the perspective of this world has been carefully chosen. Music dictates the mood of the series, and even the creators refer to special events as "episodes." The truth of the matter is, reality television is just as constructed as any other television. In some ways it's more fictional because it claims to be true: It tries to pass itself off as something it's not. And yet, the audience believes in this world. Throughout the film, this illusion of reality gradually unravels for both Truman and the audience, until Marlon finally commits the ultimate betrayal. He breaks the fourth wall, speaks directly to the camera and shatters the lie forever.
One of the things that Truman has become completely dulled to is the constant advertisements around him. The Truman Show is funded by advertising, so commercials are slipped into everyday conversations, and everything in Truman's life is for sale. This constant advertisement is woven into the series, to the point that it is has become part of the illusion of reality. Truman doesn't notice the constant verbal advertising by Meryl and Marlon, or that everyone he knows drives a Ford. The audience, it seems, doesn't notice either. Have we become so used to seeing ads everywhere we go that we have stopped noticing them as well? The product placement in The Truman Show is more obvious than we are used to, but we are getting continually closer to the world of Seahaven as people are accepting money to put billboards on their cars and selling forehead ad space on eBay. We are getting frighteningly close to the point where our entire lives are filtered through the media, and our children are raised to be good consumers.
The Truman Show is a postmodern presentation, offering a microcosm of the postwar suburban version of the American Dream, and voicing our internal tension over such a dream. In some ways, life in Seahaven is appealing. It is safe, heavily protected from outside influences: The conservative right-wing American dream town. It has no crime because there is no real socio-economic disparity. There are very few people of color, and the few look a lot like the Cosby family. There is no cultural diversity, just a walled city preventing any undesirables from upsetting this created upper-middle class W.A.S.P. nest. This seeming heaven-on-Earth quickly turns into a nightmare, though, as Truman physically and metaphorically looks for an escape. The level of control and lack of privacy in Seahaven isn't worth the safety and stability. The surveillance is downright chilling. In truth, we also don't want consumerist conformity anymore. Our culture is starting to embrace individualism and uniqueness now, and we no longer want to be tied down by the illusion of choice that the mainstream media has to offer us. Part of Truman's desire to explore comes from how sick he is of the bland uniformity of Seahaven. He longs to travel to Fiji, where he can find an island that no other man has set foot on before.
Truman's mythic battle ends with his coming to terms with the possibility that life isn't what it seems. He is our stand-in in this fictional world. He battles his own fears, and conquers them through determination. He must also defeat nature in a physical trial, then face his creator in a challenge of willpower. The result is a sequence that is supremely satisfying, one that always leaves me a bit teary, yet hopeful as well. Although we may always be a step or two away from truth or reality, the quest for self-determination is a critical one in our own development.
In the hands of a lesser director, The Truman Show could have easily been a silly Jim Carrey vehicle, or a mildly amusing comedy like Edtv. Fortunately, Peter Weir manages packed his movie to the gills with humor and humanity. Most of the film is seen through the series' cameras, as though we are watching the actual show. The strange angles give the film a unique but effective look, and the shifts back to standard film photography are rarely distracting. The performances are remarkable as well, especially the breakthrough performance from Carrey. This was the first indication that he would grow into a serious dramatic actor, and it remains his best performance to date. Although Truman is sometimes goofy, he has been raised (without realizing it) to be the center of attention all the time, and his expressions and physicality never seem out of place. The other actors are, of course, playing actors. They do a fine job of switching gears, handling several layers of performance.
This special edition is far better than the original disc. The original video transfer was full of edge enhancement and print flaws. This transfer is sharp and clean, and has far better color saturation. The sound transfer is similar to the original disc's but a bit stronger, featuring a fine 5.1 track with clear dialogue and a rich mix of Burnhard Dallwitz's incredible score. Although this isn't the most impressive special edition I have seen, there are a few worthwhile extras. There is a two-part production featurette, which rarely falls into self-congratulation, but covers a lot of areas of production. There are some deleted scenes as well. They are amusing to watch, but I'm glad they weren't incorporated back into the film. They do extend some of the concepts, and show better how the show works behind the scenes. More interesting is a feature on the art design and digital editing that made Seahaven look just a little fake. The best special effects are often subtle, and The Truman Show has a lot more than I had realized. There is also a photo gallery, as well as a collection of trailers. It would have been nice to have a commentary track as well, but enough information was covered during the featurettes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much respect as I have for The Truman Show, it does have a few flaws. When we flashback to the footage of Truman, Marlon, and Meryl as teenagers, they still look 30. It breaks the illusion of the show, which does really distract the audience. At times, some of the ideas could be a bit more subtle. The irony that Cristof is a very private person seems a little unnecessary by that point in the film, since so much about the show has already been set up. These are small problems in a great film, but there are a few scenes that always pull me out of the experience when I watch the film.
Light, funny entertainment on the surface and deeply satisfying underneath, The Truman Show is one of those rare movies that can be enjoyed on a multitude of levels. I'm sure many fans of the film will read the above discussion, shrug, and say, "I just thought it was a funny movie." Others, like me, will always feel a tug in their heart as the film reaches its final frames. It is a great film, and this DVD does justice to Weir's entertaining and slightly chilling view of the media and the world.
And in case I don't see you, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.
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