Rewatching: The Truman Show

Inspired by Letterboxd data that revealed it to be a lockdown favorite, editor-at-large Dominic Corry looks at the ever-evolving importance of contemporary masterpiece The Truman Show.

It has long been apparent that The Truman Show is an unnervingly prescient film. The story of a man who becomes aware that his superficially idyllic life is, in fact, a live-streamed television show has gone from being high-concept to every-day.

Thanks to the three Ps—the prevalence of mass urban surveillance, the proliferation of reality television and the pervasiveness of video in social media—the notion of cameras filming our every move is no longer a paranoid fantasy, but real life. The twist being that, for the most part, we all willingly signed up for it, and did all the filming ourselves. As Yi Jian saliently observes in his review: “Not to get all ‘we live in a society’ on Letterboxd but I know a person or two in real life that would actually give anything to trade lives with Truman, it do be like that sometimes”. It indeed do, Yi Jian.

So it’s something of a cliché at this stage to point out how we are all living in some version of the The Truman Show, and you don’t have to be a member of the royal family to feel that way. Yet, somehow, the film has become even more pertinent over the last eighteen months. And it’s a pertinence reflected in the massive uptick in viewership for the film as seen in Letterboxd activity.

During the month of February 2020, the last moment of the Before Times, The Truman Show had a modest 1,235 diary entries. That number tripled in April of that year, by which time the seriousness of the pandemic had become clear. And by July, deep in the worst of the pandemic, Truman fervor peaked, with a further 178 percent leap over April’s numbers, firmly placing it in the top 200 films watched by our members in a year of lockdown. (By the way, ‘diary entries’ mean activity where the member has added a watched date; many thousands more also marked Truman as ‘watched’ in those dark months, but didn’t specify a date.)

It’s not difficult to imagine why we might become more interested in revisiting this eminently re-visitable film. During lockdown, social media—including Letterboxd—took on a greater presence in terms of how we communicated with each other. We got used to seeing footage of faces more than actual faces. We were all the stars of our own ‘Truman Show’, and simultaneously the audience of everyone else’s ‘Truman Show’.

Christian Torres boiled it down effectively when he wrote: “Now every movie I see seems to be related to my life in quarantine. I am Truman and I want to escape.” And Sonya Sandra eloquently captured the film’s increased contemporary significance in her review: “This is a real-life daylight horror film. The best kind. Even more relevant in 2021 than ever. We are all Truman, we all want to find what is real in our fake lives filled with media, capitalism and ideology. And it’s our job to fight the storm and get to the truth of it all. Nothing is real, everything is for profit, and everyone is selfish. Go out and find what is real, because it’s definitely not here.”

With its deft, dazzling blending of the profound and the humorous, the optimistic and the cynical, it’s difficult to think of anything released since The Truman Show that comes as close as it does to being a modern-day Frank Capra movie. It’s hopeful, but has its eyes wide open. There’s a darkness in the themes of the film that is never replicated in the colors on display.

While everyone involved delivers career-best work, we must principally credit the triumvirate of talent at the center of the film: director Peter Weir, screenwriter Andrew Niccol and star Jim Carrey.

Star Jim Carrey and director Peter Weir on the set of The Truman Show (1998).
Star Jim Carrey and director Peter Weir on the set of The Truman Show (1998).

Weir is a director who inspires much online love whenever his name is mentioned, but he isn’t really mentioned all that often. Or at least as often as he should be. The Australian filmmaker has delivered masterpieces across multiple genres, and it’s extremely sad that he hasn’t directed a movie since 2010’s not-quite-true World War II drama The Way Back, arguably one of his lesser works. That’s also, insanely, one of only two movies he’s made since Truman, the other being Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, the wide and rabid affection for which regularly kicks up on Twitter (not to mention demand for a sequel).

Weir doesn’t do many interviews, and while this 2018 Vanity Fair article marking Truman’s twentieth anniversary has many quotes about the film’s modern relevance, Weir doesn’t offer any commentary to that effect, presumably preferring to let the work speak for itself—though in this 1998 interview he did talk about the relationship between the media, the general public and the people we become fascinated with, as a “complex situation”.

The Vanity Fair article does, however, reveal a fascinating ‘what if’ scenario relating to Christof, the god-like director of the in-movie TV show played by Ed Harris, who offers up a pile of pretentious auteur clichés: mononymous, beret, etc. (beyond the whole god thing, that is). When Dennis Hopper, originally cast in the role, wasn’t working out, Weir considered playing the role himself, which would’ve added yet another meta layer. It brings to mind how George Miller styled Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne) after himself in Mad Max: Fury Road, or how Christopher Nolan’s haircut shows up in most of his films.

Ed Harris as Christof in The Truman Show (1998).
Ed Harris as Christof in The Truman Show (1998).

And, at one point, it could have gone mega-meta. Weir, in the 1998 interview, talked about a “crazy idea” he had, a technical impossibility back then but easily achievable with live-streaming now. “I would have loved to have had a video camera installed in every theater the film was to be seen [in]. At one point, the projectionist would … cut to the viewers in the cinema and then back to the movie. But I thought it was best to leave that idea untested.” Imagine.

Weir also played a role in helping to shape the originally much more overtly dark screenplay into the cheerier (on the surface at least) shooting script, which is solely credited to fellow antipodean, New Zealand-born Niccol, also a producer on the film. Both men have done the majority of their work in America, but it’s tempting to credit the film’s tone-perfect sense of heightened Americana to the degree of separation offered by their foreign provenance. In any case, it’s clear that open-air mall designers were paying attention.

Niccol’s original screenplay made his name in Hollywood, and revealed a storyteller excited by big ideas. He moved into directing with the smaller-scale Gattaca, released a year prior to Truman (itself delayed to meet Carrey’s availability). Niccol’s subsequent filmography includes several legit bangers (Lord of War hive step up!), and his endearing dedication to lofty allegories in a genre setting makes him an increasingly rare breed in Hollywood.

Like Weir, he is not the greatest fan of giving interviews, but the Vanity Fair piece quotes him making an interesting point: “When you know there is a camera, there is no reality,” thereby making Truman “the only genuine reality star.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by MusicMoviesMe, who writes that “‘Truman Show’ beats all other reality shows out there like Bachelors, Survivors and Kardashians. Come on, when you know there’s a camera at your tail, there’s no reality. So yes, Truman beats all reality shows out there bar none!”

The role was perfectly suited to Jim Carrey’s affected mannerisms, and his status as one of the world’s biggest stars meant he could relate to Truman more than most people. Then, at least. Nowadays, of course, we are all Truman.

“It is always incredible to see how far The Truman Show was ahead of [its] time,” observes The Closer79. “In a world where celebs are monitored 24/7 and we are showered with unnecessary private information on the web, where talent-free wannabes become famous and where you sometimes [wonder] what kind of surreal show society you are in—Truman and his fake show life cleverly have anticipated all of this. Only Truman knew nothing of his luck and he was granted an escape from his glass prison. We don’t really have this possibility… Aren’t we all Truman? Sometimes even voluntarily…”

Austin Burke concurs: “I have always known that I really enjoyed this film, but I had no clue that it would hold up so well years later… Could this be because the strange world that he finds himself in is far more similar to our world today? Possibly, but the idea and themes are so much more relevant now compared to when this originally released.” And while DallasFrance is conscious of piling on about the film’s prescience, his review highlights how there really is no limit to the film’s meta qualities:

“Instead of writing a review about how this film predicted social media, or how we’re all Truman, or yadda yadda yadda, I’ll instead fixate on the miraculous fact that two absolute legends were cast as primary viewers of the Truman Show:

1. The old lady from The Running Man who starts betting on Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger). ‘He’s one bad motherf*cker!’

2. The villain from The Karate Kid Part II:

‘Live or die, man?!’
‘Wrong!’ *hooooonnnkkk*

I’ve never seen either of these actors in any other roles. With the second one, I felt like I was watching a character from my childhood watch a character from his childhood come to realizations about the characters in his childhood. So actually… the movie’s really about me.”

Never change, LB membership.

We are all generally pretty aware of how ahead of its time The Truman Show was, but that doesn’t lessen its impact. Maddie’s review shows that there’s always some new angle to consider: “Imagine being an extra in this movie… You would be an extra, playing an actor, playing an extra. Think about that long enough and tell me that doesn’t make you want to walk into the ocean.”

Kev goes even further: “Watching other people watch somebody else while also watching that person while also watching the person watching over that person is a great reminder that watching is weird, and to be watched is to not own yourself. Don’t watch, don’t try to be watched. Just live.”

Or perhaps Will encapsulates the film’s ability to present an ever-evolving message best, writing that, “clearly, this is video proof that we live in a simulation.” Beyond mere prescience, The Truman Show is a telling mirror to whatever era it is viewed in. Its message will continue to evolve.

Now that we’re finally (touch wood) emerging from the pandemic, it will be fascinating to see what The Truman Show has to say about its audience and the world they live in, in years to come. Rest assured, it will be well-documented by you, the Letterboxd audience.

Also: can Peter Weir please make another movie? Like, seriously.

Further Reading

  • A Meta-Reality: Robert’s list of layers of film in life and life in film


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