Looking back at The Truman Show

In 1999, Jim Carrey turned in one of his finest performances in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. Seb takes a look back at an enduring classic…

I’m convinced that there’s a parallel universe somewhere in which Jim Carrey is a three-times Oscar winner. In 2000, of course, he narrowly pipped Kevin Spacey for his eerily uncanny portrayal of Andy Kaufman in Man On The Moon, while in 2005, he swept Jamie Foxx aside following a muted yet deeply sympathetic turn in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. But of course, his first win came in 1999, beating Roberto Begnini to the punch following the stunning career volte-face that was Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.

Okay, so on Earth Prime, Carrey’s never even been troubled with so much as a nomination by the Academy. But of all the (now seemingly deliberate) slights that he’s suffered, none rankles more than the lack of recognition for his performance as the world’s biggest reality TV star, Truman Burbank. It’s one of those rare examples of a film and actor coming along for one another at precisely the right moment, with the external circumstances surrounding the star almost doing as much to make him perfect for the role as his acting ability on the screen.

“In case I don’t see you – good afternoon, good evening and goodnight!”

Because nobody else in the world could have taken the lead role in The Truman Show in 1998. It wasn’t just that Carrey had the acting chops to pull it off – although he did, turning in a performance of almost heartbreaking empathy as the man who’s only ever known a world in which everyone is lovely to him suddenly finding the whole thing is a sham – but because of who he was at the time.

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The conceit of the film hinges on Truman having the most recognisable face in the world – and at that time, riding a wave of comedy megastardom that even the poor performance of The Cable Guy couldn’t halt, Carrey was pretty much exactly that.

Although his performance towers over the film like a colossus, however, it would be wrong to say that it’s the only notable feature of it. The whole thing is built, of course, on the sort of single-sentence high concept (“Man discovers his whole life is a TV show”) Hollywood execs dream of. And in pre-empting (a year before Big Brother in the UK and Survivor in the States) a reality TV boom that, 12 years later, shows no signs of abating, it stands alongside the towering Network as an example of eerily prescient media satire.

The cleverness stretches beyond the concept and all the way out into the script and production, too. Andrew Niccol’s script is carefully structured, pulling us into the routine of our hero’s apparently perfect life before gradually picking it to pieces. Admittedly, the conceit falls down a little if you try and think too hard about how certain things work – but the film is smart enough to focus on the elements of Truman’s day to day life that can draw you into the fiction without argument. This is helped by smart details such as an opening title sequence that doesn’t include the names of supporting actors Laura Linney and Noah Emmerich – but instead credits them under their in-universe “real names”.

“Think about it, Truman – If everybody’s in on it, then I’d have to be in on it too… I’m not in on it, Truman, because there is no ‘it’.”

The film climaxes not once, but twice, with utterly magnificent set-pieces. First of all, as the reality of Truman’s situation begins to hit home on him, there’s the exquisitely choreographed sequence of his father’s return from the ‘dead’. Our first glimpse behind the curtain is sudden and stark – as Truman is comforted by his friend Marlon, we suddenly cut to the sky-bound control room for the first time (almost a full hour into the film), with the show’s creator Christof carefully improvising a script for his actor to deliver.

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What then follows is majestic in its composition, Christof acting as an orchestral conductor in controlling the movement of camera angles and swelling music. The scene that plays out before us is, of course, guided by the hand of director Peter Weir – but in that moment, we believe Christof is directing it live, before our very eyes.

Then, of course, there’s that closing scene – one which provides us with surely one of the most arresting and iconic images of the cinematic decade. Truman’s attempted escape across the water – again, with Christof directing every aspect of the surrounding environment – is gripping and enthralling, before the arresting image of him walking along the blue-painted wall of “sky” that borders his prison. The conversation that follows proves that for all his self-assumed omnipotence, Christof never really understood the one thing that made The Truman Show what it was – Truman himself.

“You never had a camera in my head!”

All of this is without mentioning the brilliant touches and detail that are littered throughout the script, production and direction. From the cheery-yet-sinister atmosphere of Seahaven – a telling glimpse into Christof’s psyche if it represents his perfect town – to the cunning methods employed to keep Truman from discovering the reality of his situation.

From the inventive use of camera angles to show the viewer’s eye on proceedings, to the fact that the film is careful not to show us a moment of Truman’s life after walking out of the dome, The Truman Show is consistently dazzling, original and intelligent. It’s a true fable, and parable, of modern times.

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