Movie Meaning Monday: The Truman Show: A Cynical Take on Media and Christianity

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“We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented.” -Christof

*SPOILERS! Watch the movie first if you haven’t already!*

Have you ever seen a movie that’s so, so good, it’s almost painful to watch? That’s how I feel when I hear the first few bars of The Truman Show theme.

If you tuned into last week’s movie review, you know I had a bitch of a time trying to find Chitty Chitty Bang Bang online. Luckily, The Truman Show is currently on Netflix, so you can head over there yourself if you’re interested in seeing this movie. And seriously, you have to. If you’ve gotten this far and haven’t watched the movie, close this page and watch it right now.

I was purposefully very sarcastic and cynical in my last review, but I’ll try not to be in this one. The movie is already so cynical and dark, it pretty much speaks for itself. So what is The Truman Show?

Well, it stars none other than the eclectic Jim Carrey. You know him for his slapstick humor, but did you also know him for his more serious performances? (As far as I’m concerned, he only has a few.) Jim Carrey’s performance is raw, singular, genuine, and above all, emotional. He slides into the role of Truman Burbank so quickly. Carrey really brings him to life in a seamless, authentic manner. You almost forget Truman is just a movie character. Though the film is marketed as a satirical comedy, that label is hardly the tip of the iceberg. Yes, it’s a comedy, but it’s also a cynical exposé of religion, media, government surveillance, and reality television.

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Essentially, the movie is about a television show called The Truman Show. Truman Burbank, the star of the show, has lived his entire life unaware of the fact that his entire life is being filmed and broadcast to the entire world. His wife is an actress, his best friend is an actor, and everybody in his city, “Seahaven”, are actors as well. And the city, for that matter, isn’t even really a city at all. It’s a giant freaking set, inside a dome, installed with 5000 24/7 secret cameras. Despite the fact that we, as viewers, know Seahaven isn’t real, it’s easy to consciously forget. We ourselves often forget to distinguish reality from fantasy, and Seahaven is a sharp reminder of that.

I feel like at some point in our lives, we all worry that the world revolves around us. I myself have been secretly worried in the past that my entire life is like Truman’s- a conspiracy that everybody is in one, except for me. Maybe it is, but I think the more likely scenario is our fight-or-flight instinct. We all have a desire to feel like we are in control of our own lives, for primarily survival reasons. It’s a very “you-can’t-get-me-if-I-get-you-first” feeling, in a way. The directors of the movie could have very easily glazed over this and made a pure comedy out of this conspiracy, but Peter Weir is a genius. The movie is funny, but it’s a dark, slightly uncomfortable humor. Humor isn’t the primary point of the movie, the point of the humor is to make the sadness of the film more bearable and accessible for viewers.

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Everyone is tuned in to watch Truman’s unassuming life, who, like I said, has no idea his entire life is a television program. At least, for the first thirty years of his life. If Truman never figured out his life was all a reality TV show watched by millions around the world, that wouldn’t be much of a movie, would it?

This does raise an important question. We (hopefully) know that what is happening to Truman is immoral, so why do millions of people tune into The Truman Show? Why does almost nobody see anything wrong with this? Because we’re fascinated by human behavior. It makes us feel more normal about our own habits; it comforts us. It’s not much different than turning on a reality TV show or tuning into your favorite content creator- we crave to see every element of their lives and compare its normalcy to our own.

In order to keep Truman from trying to get out of Seahaven, creators of the show instilled a traumatizing fear of water into Truman when he was very young. Truman witnessed the death of his “father” in a boating “accident”, forever leaving him with intense aquaphobia. Of course, there was never a real boating accident, and the man playing Truman’s father is just an actor. Nonetheless, Truman’s intense fear of water effectively prevents him from ever leaving. As I said before, all Seahaven’s residents are actors. They either have a set script to read, or they are fed lines to repeat via microphone by Christof, the creator of The Truman Show. Christof has overwhelming power over Truman’s life, but gives Truman just enough freedom that the audience can see his true emotions and natural human behaviors.

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Despite the fact that all of Truman’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors were technically real, Christof did manage to Truman’s personal life intensely. When Truman is in college, the Christof and the show crew have already picked out a future wife for Truman, Meryl. Despite Meryl suddenly appearing in Truman’s life and essentially pushing herself onto him, Truman falls in love with another “student” on the campus. The actress, whose real-life name is Sylvia, sneaks Truman out on a secret date so that they can spend one evening together before she is “taken away.” Sure enough, an man who introduces himself as Sylvia’s father, shows up immediately and drags her into a car. As she is being pulled from Truman, Sylvia tries as quickly as she can to tell Truman the truth about his life (“It’s all fake, none of it’s real, it’s a set,” etc.) Despite her efforts, Truman isn’t able to figure out what she means, and is left completely shocked when Sylvia’s “father” announces they’re moving to Fiji.

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Translation: Sylvia is being removed from the show.

Truman, of course, in his unknowing obliviation, really believes that Sylvia is in Fiji, waiting for him there. Even after his marriage to Meryl, he spends years planning an escape to Fiji where he can reunite with Sylvia. And if that’s not the most f*cking tragic, heartless thing you’ve ever seen, I don’t know what is. Truman even uses scraps of women’s magazines to try to recreate her face, so that he can find her when he gets to Fiji. Outside of the show, Sylvia is now a member of the “Free Truman” campaign, which demands that Christof end the show forever.

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Side note: the show’s adamancy to make sure Truman falls in love with a pre-picked actress never sat right with me. Wouldn’t it make more sense to let Truman fall in love with whoever he wanted, to make his feelings and human behavior more authentic and enjoyable to watch?

Anyway, fast forward past college. Truman is thirty, still working a desk job, married to Meryl, and still secretly planning his adventure to Fiji to find Sylvia. Around this time, Truman begins to notice strange, unexplainable events that all seem to revolve around him. A spotlight from the set falls in front of him, a circle of rain only follows him, and the radio in his car appears to be describing all of his movements. And then, shit kind of hits the fan when the actor playing Truman’s dad sneaks back onto the show and surprises Truman. Although Truman’s “dad” is quickly removed by other actors, Truman is decidedly suspicious and wary of his life. With nothing holding him back any longer, Truman decides to take his first trip out of Seahaven, and subsequently drags Meryl on an impromptu car trip.

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Though he has a deathly fear of water, Truman’s determination pushes him through, and he crosses the bridge out of Seahaven with Meryl (who is freaking the FUCK out, by the way.) Ironically, the scene in which Truman and Meryl are driving out of Seahaven is the most genuine moment they ever have together. Obviously, Meryl is just an actress who never felt any authentic emotions towards Truman, but on this car ride, they’re both screaming and having a wild time together. It’s fascinating, and twinged with humor as well. Of course, there is no freaking way Christof is going to let Truman get out of Seahaven, and he blocks Truman’s path with a series of implausible accidents. Truman floors it through warnings of a “forest fire”, but his journey is stopped short when he reaches “a leak at the nuclear power plant.” Though Truman jumps out of the car and tries to run into the woods, he is captured and held down by workers in hazmat suits. It’s genuinely disturbing to watch, and broadcasts a terrifying truth: those who dare to speak the truth are often seen as dangerous to society. And, similarly to how the show creators manufacture fears for Truman, our own government/society manufactures fears to keep us in line.

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After being returned to their home in Seahaven, a heated argument breaks out between Truman and Meryl. Truman, now fully convinced that he is being watched under some conspiracy, lashes out at Meryl when she denies his accusations. In a moment in panic, when Truman grabs a knife from Meryl’s hands, she screams out, “Somebody do something!” and breaks character, before being quickly removed from the show. He reflects on his strange life experiences with his best friend, Marlon, who is secretly being fed replies by Christof. “Truman, if everyone was in on it…I would have to be in on it.” We appear to see some wavering in Marlon’s eyes and voice, as if he himself is struggling to keep up this lie from his closest friend.

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Truman’s growing suspicion and awareness of the world around him reminds me of a book quote I’ve always loved. When we stop focusing on the small things in life and turn our attention to the big picture, when we question things, we see life in its painful, beautiful glory. I’ll insert the quote here, and let you chew on that for a while.

“Mom says each of us has a veil between ourselves and the rest of the world, like a bride wears on her wedding day, except this kind of veil is invisible. We walk around happily with these invisible veils hanging down over our faces. The world is kind of blurry, and we like it that way. But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there’s a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again. We see all the beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love. But mostly we are happy not to. Some people learn to lift the veil themselves. Then they don’t have to depend on the wind anymore.” When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead.

In an attempt to keep the show together and prevent Truman from leaving the Seahaven, Christof re-introduces Truman’s father, who uses amnesia after the accident as the reason for his prolonged absence. As Truman cries and falls into the arms of his “father”, audiences around the world cheer, and the show ratings skyrocket.

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After Meryl moves out and leaves Truman, he begins spending his time sleeping in his basement. One night, a member of the production team notices that Truman is sleeping slightly out of sight, and remaining seemingly unresponsive to external stimuli. Christof sends in Marlon to wake Truman up, but when he pulls back the blanket, the world is shocked to see that it’s only a dummy. Upon further searching, Marlon discovers a makeshift tunnel in Truman’s closet.

With Truman now missing in action, a city-wide search in Seahaven breaks out. Arm in arm, flashlights in hand, hundreds of cast members marched through the streets calling Truman’s name. To make the search easier, Christof cues the sun to rise in the dome, even though it’s the middle of the night. We watch Christof take control of the sun, and once again, a biblical allusion is made. His power as an almost celestial-like being is getting out of control, and he’s destroying reality with every move. Panicking, Christof realizes the only place they haven’t searched for Truman is on the water, despite his life-long fear of it.

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Sure enough, when Christof turns on the “ocean cams”, we see Truman sailing across the sea on a small boat, looking surprisingly happy and at peace. The world once again cheers at Truman’s discovery, but it’s unclear if they’re happy that he’s trying to escape, or just happy that Truman is back on TV. Nonetheless, Christof is pretty pissed that Truman is trying to escape, and simulates a dangerous storm to try to coax him back to land. Christof sends in lightning, thunder, rain, wind, and even capsizes Truman’s boat at one point in an apparent effort to kill him. “We can’t kill him in front of a live audience!” cries one crew member. “He was born on a live audience,” replies Christof coldly.

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Despite capsizing and risking his own life for the sake of truth, Truman somehow manages to pull himself back onto the boat and keep sailing. At this point, completely dumbfounded, Christof stops the storm and watches Truman sail onward. It’s amazing how despite the fact that he’s so close to death and losing everything, Truman appears to be, like I said, the happiest he’s ever been. He is finally pursuing his freedom, his right to a true life, and he’s clearly willing to die for it. He sails on peacefully, now having overcome Christof’s storm. And then, Truman’s boat hits the wall of the dome.

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My favorite element of this scene is that it’s completely silent, except for intense, instrumental music. We can’t hear Truman as he smashes his fists on the wall of the dome, gazing up at the sky in despair, the integrity of his life and trust now completely destroyed. It’s a physical manifestation of challenging fate and reality, physically touching what has restrained you for all your life, and coming face-to-face with your greatest fear. As he begins to walk around the inner perimeter of the dome, he appears to be walking on the water, as if he has taken on a newfound celestial form. He finds a stairway leading up to an exit door, which is really just another theological allusion- the stairway to heaven.

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Before he can push through the door, Christof speaks to him for the first time in his life through a loudspeaker coming from the “sky”,  and actually tries to convince him to stay in Seahaven. It really does come across like God is speaking to Truman, because all Truman hears is a man’s voice coming from the parting clouds. He introduces himself as the creator of the show. “And who am I?” replies Truman.

He tries to tell Truman that there’s no more truth in the real world than there is in his little dome world, but does ultimately reveal to Truman that yes, his life is a television show being watched 24/7 by millions of people. Christof attempts to comfort Truman by telling him that he is real, and so were his feelings, despite the fact that his entire life was artificially monitored. Irritated by Truman’s dumbfounded silence, Christof laughs and says, “Come on, say something! You’re on television.”

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With a slight smile, Truman looks up at the sky and repeats his famous catchphrase one more time: “And in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening, and goodnight!” He spreads his arms, bows, and unflinchingly exits through the door. If you pause the movie at the right time, with his arms spread open wide, Truman appears to look figuratively crucified. As Truman leaves the show, Christof is flabbergasted, crowds across the world go wild, and Sylvia springs up and out the door to finally reunite with Truman.

That’s where the movie ends, and it feels so right. Christof has finally lost his battle to Truman, and Truman’s unconditional desire for accepting life beyond what is in front of him has won. We don’t know what happens to Truman after he exits the show, and it’s perfect. I nearly cry every. Single. Damn. Time.

We’ve now established this is a pretty hefty drama/comedy film, but the thing that makes The Truman Show so singular and remarkable is its cynicism. The Truman Show may just be a fictional movie, but it’s also social commentary on Christianity, metaphilosophy, simulated reality, existentialism, and reality television. This movie came out about twenty years ago, but it’s still relevant to our own modern society and personal relationship with media. With technology as our catalyst, we are the stars of our own Truman shows.

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As you may have picked up on by now, the character of Christof does take on some form of an analogy for Christ. He is the controller of Truman’s universe- the overseer of all, with the power of utter surveillance on those literally below him. It’s also noteworthy to mention Truman’s own namesake: is he really a true-man, we wonder? Yes, his emotions and thoughts are real and his own, but will he ever be able to accept a life beyond his false simulation? Will he choose danger, real pain, and freedom over the safety of what he thinks he knows? Truman basically answers that question in the intense sailing scene- he would die for his own freedom. He represents, a dark, desolate future where we repeat history again, but this time in the form of government surveillance. Truman really doesn’t give a shit, he’d rather be dead than live in a fantasy where nothing is what it really seems.

What we can infer, however, is that Truman and Sylvia will soon be finally reunited. Sylvia, the catalyst for Truman to lift the corner of his veil and see beyond what is in front of him; Sylvia, the only true thing in Truman’s life.

As I said, this is is hands-down one of my favorite films of all time. It’s entertaining, it’s funny at times, and ultimately, it’s extremely powerful. I’m excited to hear your thoughts as well on the film, and if The Truman Show has had a similar impact on your life. This movie is 10/10.

Movie trivia: 

Watch the trailer here: 

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