The Truman Show: Through a Glass Darkly

There is a scene towards the end of Peter Weir’s 1998 masterpiece film “The Truman Show” where Truman, the affable insurance salesman who is unknowingly the subject of a wildly popular TV show, is about to step out of the soundstage where he has unwittingly spent his entire life. To get to this point, he has had to set off in a boat to cross a fake but deadly ocean in order to reach an unknown destiny. He did this in spite of all is ‘friends’, who are really  paid actors, continuously misleading him in order to keep him docile and afraid, and therefore, keep the show going.

Up to this moment, Truman has been grasping at a higher truth he suspects is out there, but he can’t quite reach. He has caught glimpses of it; an out of place extra, an odd repeating pattern to his day. Each crack in the facade makes him more determined to get out of what he suspects is a fake reality and to know life as it is, whatever that may be.

Truman is waking up to the fact that his life is not what it seems. The entire movie is about Truman discovering the nature of his reality. He lives in the TV version of the Garden of Eden and he is desperately looking for the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but in this case, his ‘wife’ is a paid actor and in on the story. She not only hides the apple; she denies it even exists.

There are ‘snakes’ in his garden who over the years have broken in to the soundstage and tried to tell Truman the truth, but for the most part, everyone but Truman is invested in the status quo, and no one wants to see the show stop.; not the creators, advertisers, actors, or viewers. In that sense, no one loves Truman. The regulars in his life will not tell him the truth.

There is a woman who Truman meets briefly. She was a bit player in the show and she tries to tell him the truth but the show handlers hustle her away before she can convince him. This is his true love, and she is the catalyst that drives him to stop pretending. In a world with her in it, he must be his authentic self. In some sense, Truman knows, and she breaks the spell for good.

He begins to vary his routines so he’s harder to manage, and then, he goes in to full voiced rebellion. It isn’t long before he sets out on the open ocean armed with nothing but the faith that there is a higher truth. He will find it or die trying, and finally, he reaches the edge of the known world. He sails his boat, literally, in to the wall of the soundstage.

Just before he exits the reality he’s known his entire life, he hears a voice. As Truman stares upward, the show’s creator, Christos, takes to the PA system in the fake ‘sky’ and speaks to Truman in a disembodied voice. Truman hears the voice of a non-actor for the first time in his life. Creator meets created.

Truman asks who he is speaking with and Christos answers “I am the creator… of a TV show watched by millions…”

Truman asks “Who am I?” and Christos says, “You’re the star.”

“Was nothing real?” Truman asks. “You were real,” he is told. “That’s what made you so good to watch.”

Of course, Truman was real because he was unaware of what everyone else knew. His behavior was authentic in a contrived, man-made world. He was real because he didn’t know better. He’s been providing the authenticity in a fake world for the entertainment and pleasures of millions of immobile others.

Christos warns Truman, who is about to step out of his sunny world and through a door beyond which we see only darkness: “There is no more truth out there than in the world I created for you. Same lies, same deceit, but in my world, you have nothing to fear.”

In the realm of dramatic writing, a story is compelling if the stakes are high and the choices, while difficult, are clear. In this moment, the stakes are the highest humans can imagine and the choice is as clear as stepping in to the darkness or not. It is a perfect dramatic set up and as close as any movie can come to capturing the deepest and most difficult choice any human faces. Do we live authentically with all the uncertainly that entails, or retreat in to the safety of our myths?

After hiding his face for a time, Truman turns, faces his creator and rather than rage at his disappointing God who has misled him his entire life, he spits out a banality: “In case I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and good night.” It seems that already, Truman has developed a keen and biting sense of irony.

Then he steps through the door and in to the world. He is reborn.

The reaction of fans around the world that see Truman leave the false world through which they have lived is jubilation. They have always known that Truman deserved to be free, and perhaps they knew that Truman was being deprived of one of life’s greatest treasures for their benefit, which is the right to be told the truth and to suffer for it.

Before the internet, there were many films built around the altered reality of TV, and people’s addiction to it. “Network” comes to mind. “Natural Born Killers” was about toxic celebrities and ‘trash TV’. Television was and still is a passive world where viewers sit and watch and lets others do the living. This was all pre-internet when no one would have imagined the fake realness when those viewers themselves when given media channels of their own like Facebook. People follow the largely contrived lives of famous people on the internet and watch ‘reality TV’ which they know is fake. Truman was unique in the sense that he didn’t know he was at the center of a manufactured world.

Everyone living person on earth is on Truman’s quest, with varying degrees of success. I wonder, what God would want to keep us captive? Freedom is the freedom to fail and learn and be disappointed, even if it kills us.

In a sense, the story of Truman Burbank is like the story of Adam and Eve if we accept the conceit that the world God made for man was fake, and therefore, static and dead, and it was the apple that set man free. He saw though a glass darkly not to the truth of God’s rescue from our lives, but the truth of our lives if we accept and know the nature of our reality. It is a tale of transcendence and as timeless as our longing to learn and grow and live. It is the story of God if he could love us enough to let us be more like Him instead of frustrating us continually. The last five minutes is one of the greatest moments in American cinema, a cultural treasure to be savored: