1990s >> 1998 >> no-1131-november-1998

The Truman Show

Truman Burbank is a happily married insurance salesman living in Seahaven, an island town in middle America. A regular guy, you might think, leading an ordinary, uneventful life. He jabbers to himself in the bathroom mirror, his neighbours smile benignly at him as he goes off to work.

But the audience is soon made aware that all is not well with Truman, even before he realises it. A cutaway shows us that everything in his life is being dictated by an unseen director to actors through earpieces, while five thousand cameras track his every movement. Truman’s whole life is a television soap in which he is the only unknowing participant.

Truman’s world, really just a giant TV studio, literally starts to fall apart. A piece of lighting crashes at his feet. More poignantly his father, who as a child he had seen drown, re-appears as a dosser in the street, before being dragged away. He yearns for a girl—in fact an extra who broke out of the programme’s strict plan—who he once fell in love with, before she, too, is led away from him.

As he gradually realises the scale of his predicament, Truman’s unease turns to paranoia and then to righteous anger. The audience is torn between laughing at some really funny scenes (Truman is acted by Jim Carrey, hitherto best known as a zany comedian) and moving cameos of a manipulated man struggling to “get a life”.

The critics loved this film and so did I. They summed it up in various ways—a satire on television, a moving statement about the human condition, a plea for freedom, an off-beat studio confection, a black comedy. To some extent, it is all of those things. But for me the Daily Telegraph‘s critic’s judgment was surprisingly more profound: a “penetrating critique of contemporary society . . . This is a world entirely of artifice, in which everything is for sale”.

The Truman Show vividly illustrates and confirms everything Marx wrote about alienation, although he could not have foreseen the detailed forms it would take. Truman himself is forcibly separated from a truly human life and society in a particularly cruel way, being an unwanted child adopted by a corporation. But all the thousands of bit-part players, extras and studio workers are also exploited—they sell themselves to the “project”, in this case the profit-seeking televising of Seahaven. The megalomaniac director is a metaphor for the ruling class, ostensibly running the whole show but himself a highly-paid executive of some national if not multinational corporation.


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