In my review of The Truman Show, I explain that I see it perhaps
"as a scalpel-like allegory for religion - the Christian Church and in
particular, a damnation of its benign nature as a control-freak. Take a look at The Truman
Show’s creator, Christof – his brown beret standing in for the gold halo of
Christ, his credo of giving Truman the kind of kind world we ‘should’ be
living in ….And his sarcastic line, ‘Somebody help me, I’m being
spontaneous,’ easily equates to the notion that God’s gift of free will is supposed
to set us free."
Writing in Salon Magazine (one of the internet’s most regularly readable journals
of thought and opinion in America), Charles Taylor takes a very different view:
"In order to keep Truman in Seahaven his entire life, Christof has reinforced the
idea that the rest of the world is a dangerous place. Newspaper headlines proclaim
Seahaven as having been voted the best place in the world to live, and there's a hilarious
flashback to young Truman announcing to his elementary school class that he wants to be an
explorer, only to have his teacher respond, "I'm sorry, you're too late. There's
nothing left to explore." In these moments, The Truman Show
becomes the anti-"It's a Wonderful Life," a parody of the repressive
ideal of small-town America as nirvana that Ronald Reagan reintroduced into American life
and that has never really gone away.
But (writer) Niccol and (director) Weir have also latched onto a great, much bigger
subject: the way the media has eroded any separation between our public and private lives.
All sorts of cultural signposts zip through your brain as you watch The Truman Show:
programs where people agree to live their lives in front of cameras; talk shows where
guests reveal some embarrassing secret in front of an audience; those terrifying "I'm
going to Disneyworld!" ads that convert private moments into advertising space; the
people on the Internet who've set up cameras to broadcast their lives to whoever wants to
log on and watch. The Truman Show goes beyond those examples of voluntary exhibitionism to
get at the spongelike nature of media, how it absorbs everything that comes into contact
with it, recasting and simplifying experience into commodity."
That last bit is true, but only in part. Because it is also true that the media
doesn’t actually generally manage to do that – it does try, and does
occasionally succeed, because it is a creature of its consumers. Us. And we are all far
too individualistic to actually allow the media the sway it thinks it has. Look at the
ending of The Truman Show and you’ll see what I mean.
Like Charles Taylor and most other writers, Salon colleague James Poniewozik, goes
for the media, but recognises that "The Truman Show is actually
an outstanding film that pulls off a difficult premise (baby bought by corporation
is raised in a biodome as the unwitting star of a 24-hour TV show), and it has impressed
critics as the movie of the year (Entertainment Weekly), the decade (Esquire) and the era
(Salon). More important, though, it has been a useful movie for a train of reviews, op-eds
and reviews that read like op-eds -- all of which are heaping the film with cultural
baggage. (Including this one, eh? Ed)"
He goes on to argue that this is because the movie both punishes and absolves us for
watching too much tv – and it’s not our fault, we say. ‘It's the system's
fault – those media corporations are just too powerful.’ He also makes a very
good point about the studio-city in which Truman is born and bred.
"In fact, Truman is more sophisticated about mass culture than its explicators.
Take a look at the stage set Truman lives in. A parody of soulless "suburban"
America, as various reviews have described it? Look again: It's a
walkable, mixed-use community where people bicycle to work and buy newspapers from an
independent businessman. In other words, the kind of New Urbanist planned community
boosted by folks like James Howard Kunstler who knock ... corporate theme-park
The Truman Show isn't a groundbreaking dissection of today's TV culture. In fact it is
probably as effective as it is because its critique of television is so familiar. It draws
on set anti-TV beliefs to win us over, lampooning product placements and smarmy
infotainment hosts, dressing Truman's wife in the all-American Donna Reed getup that has
been an easy visual shorthand for vacuous fakeness for 20 years.
Thus reviewers praise it for "making us aware" of suspicions of television
that we have actually held for decades."
Exactly – but it’s not about tv at all. It’s more about human
nature’s need free will (the real macoy). It is also perhaps a reflection of American
society’s unnerving propensity for showing a wholesome veneer
on its face, while hiding a hideous serial offender’s heart.