[Absolutely do not read this until you’ve seen The Truman Show. I’m not kidding.]
Is The Truman Show haunting you like it’s haunting me? Do you find yourself digging through the layers of metaphors, finding new subtleties as you go? Are you in awe over Jim Carrey’s performance like I am? (My heart breaks anew for Truman each time I replay in my head the scene where he, slumped at the kitchen table, says to his wife, “Why do you want to have a baby with me? You hate me.”)
Director Peter Weir, writer Andrew Niccol, and Jim Carrey have created a stunningly original, deeply disturbing, surrealistic nightmare of a film the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long time. The Twilight Zone and The Prisoner, Terry Gilliam and George Orwell all contributed to Truman, but none of those influences ever encapsulated so many interrelated themes so brilliantly, so subversively — and so entertainingly: the pressure in our society to conform, the stifling of our children’s creativity and imagination, the abandonment of real-life pleasures to the artificiality of television, the unwillingness of most people to think for themselves.
Even more refreshing: The Truman Show is the most strongly humanistic movie in years. That pop culture is increasingly infested with angels and the argument for school prayer is rearing its head demonstrates that many, many people are all too eager to cede control over their lives to something supernatural beyond themselves. And in the midst of all that hokum, here’s a movie that’s already doing gangbusters with a message that’s says just the opposite: Rely on yourself.
Christof (Ed Harris), the creator and producer of “The Truman Show,” is Truman’s God, watching his every move, arranging Truman’s world at whim. High in his control room, Christof jealously guards his privacy while broadcasting every intimate detail of Truman’s life to the world. And yet Christof fancies himself Truman’s savior, keeping him from the awful world outside, safe in the Disneyesque world of Seahaven.
But Truman’s God is a lousy, capricious bastard, squashing his natural curiosity about the world and desire to explore, lest he discover the truth about his fishbowl world. Christof stole Truman’s father from him when he was a child, creating a terrifying fear of water in the boy, all for dramatic purposes. And on top of all that is the whole big lie: all of Truman’s “friends,” all his “family,” everyone he knows are actors. They all know him intimately, and he’s not allowed to really know them at all.
The parallels to Judeo-Christian religion are inescapable. God knows all about you, but he is a mystery. You have some limited free will, but God can arrange things to his own pleasing. (When a good friend of mine died too young last year, Christian acquaintances told me, as if to comfort me, things like “It was his time” or “God took him home.” And this is a deity worth worshipping?) But many Christians argue that the thought that there’s no God is too scary to think about.
Truman’s God, of course, does exist. But Truman decides he doesn’t need God. He conquers his fear and crosses the sea, escaping from Seahaven (on the sailboat Santa Maria, taking him to a new world). Christof hurls wind and rain and lightning at him, throwing a Godlike tantrum. But Truman makes it to the end of the world, and as he stands in the dark doorway in the wall of his fishbowl, not knowing what is beyond, he rejects Christof’s pleas to remain in his cocoon, protected from reality.
And Truman walks into the darkness. It doesn’t matter what awaits him on the other side of that darkness — the point is that he decides to stand up and face the real world, scary as it may be, like an adult with a brain instead of cowering like a child in the supposed safety of Christof’s — or God’s — supposed benevolence.
And that’s a lesson that more of us could afford to learn.