Truman (“true-man”) Burbank is the perfect name for Jim Carrey’s character in this film. President Truman was an unassuming man who became known worldwide, in spite of (or was it because of) his stature. “Truman” also recalls an era of plenty following a grim war, an era when planned communities built by government scientists promised an idyllic life for Americans. And Burbank, California, brings to mind The Tonight Show and the home of NBC. If Hollywood is the center of the film world, Burbank is, or was, the center of TV’s world, the world where our protagonist lives. Combine all these names and concepts into “Truman Burbank,” and you get something that well describes him and his artificial world.
Truman leads the perfect life. His town, his car, and his wife are picture perfect. His idea of reality comes under attack one day when a studio light falls from the sky. The radio explains that an overflying airplane started coming apart . . . but then why would an airplane be carrying a studio light? The next day during the drive to work, the radio jams and he starts picking up a voice that exactly describes his movements. He is so distracted that he nearly hits a pedestrian. When the radio comes back to normal, the announcer warns listeners to drive carefully. His suspicion aroused, he wanders around the town square looking for other oddities. The world appears to be functioning properly until he enters an office building and tries to take the elevator. The elevator doors open up on a small lounge with people on coffee breaks. A grip sees Truman him and quickly moves a paneled door, made to look like the back of an elevator, into place. Two security guards grab him and throw him out.
Truman is really suspicious now. It gets even worse the next day when his wife, a nurse, describes an elevator accident in the building where he saw the lounge. “It’s best not to think about it,” she says, trying vainly to change Truman’s memory. Truman becomes determined to see who or what is behind this apparently elaborate hoax at his expense. At every turn he is stopped by an amazing coincidence that just happens to keep him in his own little town. His last hope is to quell his fear of the ocean and sail to the edge of the world.
You know by now that Truman’s life is the subject of a television program. His actions are “real” but everything else is carefully scripted, from the death of his father to the choice of his wife. Truman is determined to find out what the big hoax is. Meanwhile, Christof, the all-seeing creator of Truman’s world does his best to keep him unaware and happy. It’s sort of like Westworld told from the robots’ point of view, or Jurassic Park from the dinosaurs’ point of view. We root for the captive of the cage-world. Our protagonist is counting on “chaos theory” to help him escape his elaborate trap.
The story, written by Andrew Niccol (writer/director of Gattaca), introduces some interesting questions, such as the ethics of subjecting a person to this type of life, or the psychological impact of learning that your entire life has all been fake. Although these questions came to mind, I don’t think the film itself asked them. It certainly didn’t address them or try to answer them. I was particularly disappointed that the film didn’t deal more with the trauma of learning one’s life is a TV show. Carrey’s performance at the end showed a smidgen of Truman’s pain, but I almost felt that he got over it too easily for the sake of the film’s pacing.
Earlier in the movie I found myself wondering if it would be better for Truman to find out the truth or whether I should root for him to be well. The two seemed exclusive of one another, but Weir and Niccol didn’t see it that way. Perhaps it’s not fair to criticize a movie for what it isn’t, but it seems like there were some missed opportunities here.
But on its own terms, the movie is well made. Sight, sound and pacing are all handled competently.
Much of the first part of the movie is The Truman Show. The scenes are all apparently shot from hidden cameras, with snoots and obstructions covering the corners of the screen. One hidden camera is apparently in his car radio, the green LED numbers obscuring the lower part of the screen.
The music is well-chosen and scored. The film opens with what sounds like family drama theme music, when Truman’s world is still beautiful and perfect. When the movie ends, the score sounds more like a frantic, driven, Tangerine Dream opus, while still keeping the same timbre. Philip Glass’ epic music (from Powaqqatsi) permeates Truman’s scenes of suspicion and awakening. (Glass has a small cameo as a keyboardist for the show.)
And the pacing of the story was brisk. There was no unnecessarily long setup explaining the concept behind The Truman Show, just a few quick title cards, a few interviews, and then right into the show, and the movie. One of the first scenes is of the studio light falling; there was no token scene of Truman’s idyllic life before it falls apart, because it wasn’t necessary, we pick up the story at the first sign of trouble, and no sooner. There’s also no point in the movie where the plot slows down. It’s a quick, straight shot to the movie’s end.
In terms of overall quality, I would compare The Truman Show to Niccol’s Gattaca. Both films are well made with interesting stories set in interesting worlds. But neither film really felt like it capitalized on all the great ideas; neither film “clicked” and became an instant classic. Nevertheless, I look forward to Niccol’s next film, whatever it may be.