Apocalyptically speaking, falling stars signal the end of the age, a coming political revolution, for the celestial lights represent rulers. The fall of one star foretells the rising of another and we have just such an omen in an early scene of The Truman Show: a halogen light with “Sirius (9 Canis Major)” written on it falls from the clear blue sky and smashes on the street behind Truman Burbank. While this is curious, more strange things begin to happen and the life Truman has so blithely lived begins to crack around the edges.
The film, directed by Peter Weir of Dead Poets Society and Master and Commander fame, came out in 1998 on the brink of the Reality TV explosion. Shows like Survivor and American Idol have changed the landscape of television, but have done little in aiding the understanding of Reality. Realism is a dubious term when applied to television and a tricky term in art, but The Truman Show takes up this amorphous idea of reality and challenges us to search for it.
The world is laid out neatly for us in the exposition. Truman was adopted by a corporation for the purpose of a reality show. Every person in his life is a professional actor or extra and the major events in his life are orchestrated for maximum audience catharsis. Even the objects around him are product placements, which finance the show. The great tragedies in his life were written in order to make him docile and controllable: the death of his father by drowning, his marriage, his job as an insurance salesman (his day is spent rehearsing tragic possibilities to potential customers). The next storylines are promoted and teased (his wife will leave him! a new romantic interest will be introduced!), even as Truman becomes aware of the false world.
One way to read the story is as an inspirational story of a man trapped in a prison, who uncovers the lie and escapes against all odds. There are many notable elements to appreciate under this reading. As is always the case with Andrew Niccol, the screenwriter, the names are significant. Truman is quite literally the True Man. As the show creator states, “while the world he inhabits is counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman.” He is encircled with water names, Marlon and Meryl, representing his chief fear and barrier to leaving. The town itself is called Seahaven, a place of protection from the uncontrollable sea. The inspiration for his rebellion against the world is Lauren Garland (whose real name is Sylvia), a protective forest/land image. Visually Truman and Sylvia are connected by the insignia of an anchor, the one thing that can calm the chaotic sea, showing that she is the grounding force for Truman. Finally the architect of the show is Christof, an “off Christ” whose work is manipulation and whose love is ultimately cruel.
There is enough here to spin a complete story, but The Truman Show is a bit more ambitious than that. The movie begins with Truman looking into the mirror, but he is shown within a television set, the grainy lines of the transmission washing over the frame. The audience is confronted with the fact that it is the audience. The act of watching is a theme that permeates the film. Truman sees that his wife has crossed her fingers in their wedding pictures, he sees repeated patterns in the pedestrians, he is searching for the eyes of another. Truman must look more deeply into the matter to discover the real world.
This is no new idea of course, long before The Matrix was Plato’s Cave allegory, but what’s novel is the inclusion of the the audience in the action. Frequently the film cuts to the outside world, where they discuss Truman’s plight, take odds for outcomes, bicker and beam with pride over the events. And yet, to them it is entertainment. After one of Truman’s failed escape attempts, a woman leans over and says, “He’s not going anywhere. He has to have it out with Meryl” as if she’s read the book and is noting the story beats. Remember, for the show to be successful, the fraud, the psychological warping, must be tacitly condoned by the audience. Truman’s life has been orchestrated, he has been traumatized and browbeaten into a dull life of consumerism by complacency and mortgages. For thirty years the audience has enabled Truman’s abusers and, as the movie emphasizes, the viewers of the movie are part of that audience.
The prison, it becomes clear, is not limited to the giant studio. The prison is as much the real world as it is Truman’s. In an interview when asked why Truman hasn’t discovered the true nature of the world Christof responds “We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.” and the movie cuts to a couple of regular joes watching the show, nodding in slack-mouthed agreement.
The audience is as trapped as Truman, living out timid lives whose value is determined by debt and possessions. Christof tells Truman that there is no more truth out in the real world; it too is filled with “the same lies and deceit”. It is not enough that the audience celebrates Truman’s triumph, they must join in his mission, cut through the lies to find the truth.
The audience is giving many opportunities to practice this deep insight. We must notice the ad for Kaiser Chicken (the German word for Emperor) and ask, who is the emperor? We must note the Omnibus Pro Uno (the Latin for “All for One”) bannered above Truman at one point and ask, who is the One that is for All? We must realize that Truman fears dogs, one of which is named Pluto (the god of the underworld), that it is the Dogstar that falls at the beginning, and that dog is dyslexic for God, just as Christof is a backwards servant of-Christ.
At the end, once Truman has conquered his fears, braved the troubled waters and wrath of the creator, Truman walks on water, rises into the air, stretches his arms out cruciform and bows, exiting the world. Christof, the chicken emperor, remains in his lunar room, detached, whereas Sylvia, who earlier beseeched God to give Truman strength, descends the stairs of her apartment rushing to Truman.
It is a thrilling ending, but the challenge that Truman embraces, the danger of the new world, must be taken up by the audience. The lure of the world Christof offers Truman is one where there is nothing to fear, but the true man knows that fear is the beginning of knowledge.