Today! Because we accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that –
The Truman Show (1998)
Directed by Peter Weir
Starring Jim Carrey (x4), Ed Harris (x3), Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Paul Giamatti, Holland Taylor (x2), Philip Baker Hall (x5), Harry Shearer (x4), Peter Krause, O-Lan Jones (x2), Joel McKinnon Miller, Tom Simmons, Brian Delate
I’m not sure at the time if we saw this movie as just a bit of science fiction or as a prescient blueprint, but either way, The Truman Show either accurately predicted what much of cable and network television would become over the next two decades, or it inspired the transformation. Sure, EDtv covered the same ground the following year (and the ’80s rebooted Twilight Zone episode “Special Service” some distance before), and was technically a little closer to the ultimate reality of reality television, plus it’s not like there had never been some version of this in actual practice – the 1973 PBS docu-series An American Family and MTV’s The Real World, most notably – but it wasn’t an omnipresent phenomenon like it would become in the 21st century. Within three years of Truman Show‘s release, the Emmys had a category for Outstanding Reality Program and in four years we had The Osbournes, popularly acknowledged as the beginning of the people having their lives filmed for entertainment craze. YouTube came along three years later, and now anyone could theoretically have their whole existence broadcast for consumption. Ah, what a time this has been to be alive!
So, whether we should be culturally grateful, scornful, or enraged at The Truman Show is up for debate. Odds are, we as a ravenous public would’ve gotten to the modern reality show with or without it, but would we have had all the potential pros and cons so elegantly laid out for us beforehand otherwise? Truman is never a movie okay with what’s going on. From minute one, as we enter into the show itself before backing out to understand the larger context, nothing is quite right. All the moments and interactions are a bit askew, as well as the angles and perspectives being purposefully askance. Even before Truman starts figuring out what’s going on – here decades into the reality show of his life’s successful run – we discover the raging debates about its existence, the fairness of his unknowing captivity, and the immorality of the entire enterprise. Similar-ish debates used to rise up about television’s exploitation of the fame hungry, and what if any the consequences would be for those individuals. This seems to have largely gone away, but when you’ve had legitimate tragedies and disasters connected to certain shows – Celebrity Rehab sure comes to mind – maybe it should be a constant disclaimer with these programs. Maybe?
Truman, however, has never been recreated, to my knowledge. With the exception of prank shows, our reality programs aren’t straight duping people into starring in programs they have no awareness of, and that’s probably for the best. Peter Weir and company create such a staggeringly plausible scenario (at least from the modern viewpoint) that the movie might actually resonate a little better today than it did in ’98, when I’ll readily admit I thought it was one of the best films I’d ever seen. Hell, I’d still hold it up against most films from the ’90s, and it may compete in an all-time capacity, but the super abundance of actual programming of this sort does kind of lessen the movie’s impact, weirdly enough.
Nonetheless, there aren’t a ton of flaws in the film. Sure, Carrey can be a little…Jim Carrey in some moments, but the movie was often promoted as a comedy, so I doubt this was overly discouraged. Ed Harris’ turn as the show’s creator – the alternately messianic/paternal Christof – can be forced to function as a bit of an exposition machine in the focus jump to the control room, but Harris is so masterful in the role that it is never short of fascinating. They manage to explore many of the logistical and psychological aspects of the show’s creation and enduring popularity, while not taking away from the terrific driving storyline, where Truman begins to suspect things are amiss in Seahaven Island, and starts to uncover the truth.
Obviously this is a movie I love, but it also provides me with some of my most aggressive bitterness toward the Oscars. For the most part, I just accept what the Academy Awards do as a matter of politics, but The Truman Show not managing a Best Picture nomination astounds me to this day. It’s not like 1998 was some monumental year – it famously featured Shakespeare in Love beating Saving Private Ryan for the top award, with The Thin Red Line, Elizabeth, and Life is Beautiful rounding out the group. All good-to-very good I’ll grant you, but not films with a ton of staying power (the opening and closing sequences of Private Ryan notwithstanding). Truman did manage Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor for Harris nods, while winning Drama Actor, Supporting Actor, and Score at the Globes, missing Picture, Director and Screenplay. It was positively received, but got totally chewed up in a year obsessed with the past. Bitter!
Carrey (#228 Eternal Sunshine, #351 Liar, Liar, #286 Me, Myself and Irene) and Shearer (#234 The Simpsons Movie, #181 A League of Their Own, #148 Fisher King) join the Four-Timers today, but it’s character great Philip Baker Hall making the greatest stride, moving to the Fives along with roles in #217 Magnolia, #278 Zodiac, #186 Talented Mr. Ripley, and #274 Argo. Spotlight!