Still from The Truman Show (1998)
Still from The Truman Show (1998)
Stories & Ideas

Wed 13 Sep 2023

The Truman Show at 25 – a prescient, cautionary tale

Film Pop culture Retrospective

A quarter of a century later, Australian director Peter Weir‘s masterpiece has never been more relevant.

Few films were as prescient as The Truman Show. Released in 1998, before technology had completely infiltrated our lives, it foretold the rise of reality TV, mass surveillance, social media, influencer marketing and our increasing obsession with celebrity.

It subverted Hollywood conventions for a blockbuster feature; it was not based on any existing material, nor reliant on extravagant visual effects, and combined aspects of several genres including romantic comedy, psychological drama, sci-fi, metafiction and social satire.

Directed by Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poets Society) and written by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord of War), The Truman Show was set in the fictional town of Seahaven and followed the seemingly idyllic life of an average insurance salesman, Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who is yet to realise that every part of his life has been fabricated, and since birth, he has unknowingly been the star of a 24-hour reality TV show watched by 1.5 billion viewers worldwide. When he begins to realise the truth about his situation, he attempts to escape the only world he has ever known.

Anticipating both the CCTV surveillance which blankets our world today and our current obsession with recording everything on our smartphones, The Truman Show follows its subject’s every move through 5,000 cameras placed in his orbit – on car wing mirrors, inside a neighbour’s garbage bin, on the wedding ring on his finger – controlled by the show’s creator Christof (Ed Harris), who manipulates the oblivious Truman into inhabiting his manufactured reality, from his surroundings to his relationships, including his best friend ‘Marlon’ (Noah Emmerich) and his wife, ‘Meryl’ (Laura Linney). Christof even engineers the ‘death’ of Truman's father at sea to infect Truman with thalassophobia – a fear of large bodies of water – to prevent him from leaving the island, only to reunite Truman with his father decades later to create a dramatic narrative for the show.

Years before the complex issues of consent and privacy became major topics (and long before there were corporate data hacks and reports of smart-home devices being used to spy on customers), The Truman Show highlighted these ethical quandaries via Christof’s exploitative behaviour.

Truman looking into his bathroom mirror - The Truman Show (1998)

Jim Carrey in The Truman Show (1998)

Ed Harris as Christof - The Truman Show (1998)

Ed Harris in The Truman Show (1998)

There are also several social developments The Truman Show could credibly claim to have warned us about: the 24-hour news cycle, product placement, parasocial relationships, the merging of entertainment and news; Truman has his own, fictional talk-show devoted to discussing the latest developments in his life, TruTalk, years before accompanying TV panel shows like Talking Married would become the norm.

Yet it wasn’t just the film’s concerns and predictions which were radical, but the approach of director Peter Weir.

Following the model he had used in Dead Poets Society (1989), by casting Robin Williams against type, Weir selected Jim Carrey, fresh from The Mask (1994), Dumb and Dumber (1994), and the Ace Ventura films (1994–5), for the more subtly comedic role of Truman.

Weir also made several bold creative choices. In building the look of the film, he drew on the work of painter Norman Rockwell to imbue his Seahaven setting with an early-mid twentieth century American aesthetic. Inspired by the perspective of surveillance camera footage, Weir, and the film’s cinematographer Peter Bizou and production designer Dennis Gassner emulated the style of security cameras in several key shots, evident in sequences such as when Truman is filmed driving from his car dashboard, from aerial cameras throughout Seahaven, and in unexpected places in his home. In designing these shots, Weir incorporated the technique of vignetting which was used in films by director D.W. Griffith and in works of the Silent Hollywood era.

Truman behind the wheel of his car - The Truman Show (1998)
Car on the bridge - The Truman Show (1998)
Truman reunites with his father - The Truman Show (1998)
Truman on a boat - The Truman Show (1998)

Initially, the producers of The Truman Show had planned to shoot the film on soundstages in Hollywood, as was standard. Yet, in another example of Weir’s unconventional approach, the film’s production was moved to Florida after Weir was inspired by a small, planned town in Florida his wife Wendy Stites had shown him, aptly called Seaside.

With its brilliant casting and accurate portensions, The Truman Show garnered both acclaim and box office success; the feature would be nominated for three Oscars and gross over $260 million off its $60 million budget.

It cemented Carrey’s reputation as a versatile actor capable of much more than zaniness and physical contortions, and it became another major achievement in Peter Weir‘s storied career, confirming him as one of Australia’s pre-eminent directors.

Yet perhaps its ultimate legacy is its cautionary message on what was to come in the twenty-first century. In the fictional viewers' mindless complicity in Truman’s manipulation through simply watching the series, Weir and Niccol forced us to confront our own viewing choices and make aware how easily we are shaped by the things we’re exposed to: corporations, advertising, technology, the media, celebrities.

Ultimately, The Truman Show is a stern warning to place a watchful eye on our beliefs, the people we trust and the roles we play.

– Anthony Frajman

Continue to Part 2: an interview with Peter Weir

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