Jul 2, 2010

24 FPS Top 100 Films: No. 78

Click the title below for a trailer.

78: THE TRUMAN SHOW [1998]
DIR: Peter Weir

Why is it on the list?
I’ve always loved movies (well, since I really began to understand them anyway), but The Truman Show was, for me, one of the early demonstrations that they are more than just entertainment. That’s not to say that The Truman Show isn’t entertaining, nor that I hadn’t been moved by a film before (after all, I’d seen Toy Story) but this film really did get to me in a way that very few up to that point had managed. It engaged my brain and my heart rather than just my eyes or my funny bone.

It’s also a very prescient film (sadly) and gets a lot of things about so called reality TV (which is, for the most part, if not scripted then strictly controlled and shaped by producers). The film’s reality star is Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), who believe that he lives in the small town of Seahaven with his wife Meryl (Laura Linney), works as an insurance salesman, and is surrounded by his friends and neighbours (including Noah Emmerich) and his Mother (Holland Taylor). Actually everyone else in Seahaven is an actor, and the town itself is a giant set. It’s all been built over the past 30 years, since Truman’s birth was bradcast live on television. The film opens on an otherwise ordinary morning, when a set light falls from ‘the sky’, prompting Truman to begin questioning the world around him.

The Truman Show mixes tones beautifully. In one moment it’s very funny, as when Laura Linney, as ‘Meryl’ advertises products right in the middle of a conversation with Truman (“Try this new Mococoa drink”). The next it can be whimsical, as in the lovely sequence in which a young Truman romances a pretty girl (British actress Natascha McElhone), not realising that she’s only an extra. It can do thrills, as in the climactic sequence in which Truman, out on the open water, is buffeted by a storm and it can be almost unbearably moving, as it is in its final, quietly euphoric, moments. Doing all this, doing it well, and having all the parts mix as one cohesive whole, is a real achievement.

That the film works is thanks largely to two people. The first is screenwriter Andrew Niccol, whose dialogue is always right on the money; the lines fed to the actors in Truman’s life always just a little unreal, a little soapy, the show’s creator; Christof (Ed Harris) suitably overblown and pretentious, and Truman himself always the most genuine presence in the film. While Niccol provided a strong blueprint it was Australian director Peter Weir (who has another film on this list) providing the sure directorial hand. There are a lot of subtle visual choices here, like the frequent framing of Truman as if we’re looking at him down a camera or on a TV screen, the odd points of view to demonstrate how many cameras there are in Seahaven. However, his most exceptional moment, the film’s iconic image, comes right at the end of the film, and it’s a beautiful, meaningful thing.

Then, of course, there’s the outstanding cast. In their supporting roles Emmerich and Linney are both excellent, with Emmerich giving a great line in fake sincerity as Truman’s ‘best friend’ and Linney flat out fantastic – and frequently hilarious - as the ‘wife’ who, one suspects, actually hates him. I heard Linney talk about her career, and one thing she said that she’d decided about Hannah (the actress playing ‘Meryl’) was that she had negotiated a $10,000 bonus every time she slept with Truman. That’s not stated in the film, but it’s certainly there in Linney’s performance. Ed Harris got a well deserved Oscar nomination as Christof, whose character is pitched somewhere between benevolent creator and controlling dictator, but Harris manages to find a caring side in him, especially in a lovely scene where he reaches out and touches Truman’s sleeping face on screen.

It is a travesty that Jim Carrey wasn’t Oscar nominated for this film (in the year that Roberto Benigni won). His performance is just wonderful. He takes his manic comic energy and largely internalises it, letting just enough seep out through the good natured Truman that it’s easy to believe that people would want to watch him. What’s most impressive though is Carrey’s aptitude for drama, even before it’s visible to those around him Carrey lets us see Truman’s emotional journey, and his growing sense of suspicion. It would be easy to overplay these scenes, and indeed Truman’s final statement, but Carrey’s work is (well, for the most part) subtle, and all the more affecting for it.

I wonder how this film plays if you’ve grown up with reality TV, but for me it’s still both a smart and prescient satire and a very moving drama.

Standout Scenes
Treasure Chest
A chest in which Truman keeps his only reminders of Sylvia, the girl that got away, triggers a funny and sweet flashback.

‘Meryl’ breaks character as she fights with Truman, finally confirming his growing paranoia.

Stairs in the Sky
One of the most beautiful images in 90’s cinema. I cry every time I see it.

Memorable Lines
Young Truman: I want to be an explorer, like the Great Magellan.
Teacher: [indicating a map of the world] Oh, you're too late! There's nothing left to explore!

Meryl: Hi, honey! Look what I got free at the checkout. It's a "Chef's Pal". It's a dicer, grater, peeler, all in one. Never needs sharpening, dishwasher safe!

Christof: Cue the sun!

Truman: [to an unseen Christof] Who are you?
Christof: [on a speaker] I am the Creator - of a television show that gives hope and joy and inspiration to millions.
Truman: Then who am I?
Christof: You're the star.


  1. Two words: Hell. Yes.

  2. I love this film. The final time Truman says that "And if I don't see ya..." line is one my favourite moments in cinema.