In today’s world, there are literally hundreds of reality television shows featuring ordinary people in a variety of situations. We have shows where singers, actors, models, and dancers compete for prizes. We have shows where B and C list celebrities bring visibility to themselves and their brands. We have shows where families open the doors of their homes and allow their family drama to be the subject of public speculation. Whatever their reasons, the people who opt to take themselves and/or their children on these shows are fully consenting, and compensated in various ways. The Truman Show gives us a very different reality, one where the primary subject of a reality show isn’t just non-consenting, but also completely unaware that he is providing unscripted entertainment to millions of people around the world.
Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is a man who’s unwittingly lived in front of the camera his entire life. The Truman Show is the most popular show in television history and its producer, Christof (Ed Harris), who also happens to be Truman’s adoptive father, are both praised as visionary by fans, and reviled as exploitative by critics. While Truman is a kind, genuine person, his family, friends, neighbours, classmates, and co-workers are all well-trained actors whose livelihoods are dependent on effectively manipulating his emotions. While his each and every action and reaction is sincere, every single person whom Truman encounters has been strategically placed in his path, and everything they do and say has been memorized, with few improvisations.
After having lived over 30 years of his life none the wiser, with each opportunity to discover the truth swiftly and thoroughly nipped in the bud, happenstance and timing bring about a minor disturbance in his idyllic world which motivates Truman to start peeling back the layers of his well-ordered life. When he does, he slowly but surely starts to learn the ugly truth about his seemingly beautiful life.
The Truman Show, while presented as a comedy-drama, is one of those films where the comedy is merely a respite from the truly harrowing subject matter. Though not overtly traumatic in any way, The Truman Show can be difficult to watch at times, because the fact that thousands of people associated with the show, and millions of people all around the world respectively profited from and were entertained by one man’s exploitation and did absolutely nothing about it is absolutely gobsmacking. Truman was cared for, wanted for nothing material, and was raised to be a compassionate, thoughtful person, but he hadn’t been given a chance to make any choices, or experience any real, unforced and unsupervised, relationships his entire life.
In every sense of the world, Truman Burbank was a well-kept slave. Unlike most slaves, who are cognizant of their place in the world around the time they learn to speak, however, the producers and actors on the show made a concerted effort to ensure that he would remain wholly ignorant of his situation, and therefore happy and thoroughly marketable. Although many people fail to see it that way, The Truman Show brings up several issues with “ethical slavery”. A slave is someone who lacks autonomy, who is legally the property of another. A happy slave is still a slave. A slave who is ignorant of being a slave is still a slave. The film also challenges the notion that those who are brought up in slavery, who know no other life, simply “can’t make it on their own” and that keeping them enslaved is “for their own good”.
Though he wasn’t systemically oppressed or physically abused in any way, Truman was emotionally abused and had his privacy invaded, his entire life exploited. The belief that some forms of abuse are lesser, or forgivable and understandable if the victim is ignorant to the fact that they are being victimized, is at the heart of The Truman Show. Also at the core of this film is the question of what makes life worth living. Is success measured in material possessions and popularity? Or in real interpersonal relationships and the building of authentic communities? The Truman Show forces viewers to consider the ethics of the parent/child relationship, exploitation, indentured servitude, and the value of honesty, trust, and privacy in a remarkably new way. The poignant moments in this film come from the knowledge that, as intensely as the audience is rooting for Truman to learn the truth, and live in it, throughout history, it has always been far too easy to get millions of people to go along with something they know deep down is wrong. And as much as we want to judge those who tuned in to Truman’s most intimate moments his entire life, most of us are no better.
I give this one 4.5 stars.