A lot can change in twenty years. Back in 1998 Apple’s latest products were the size of a small house and Tony Blair was only a year into his tenure as PM. Yet, some things made a whole two decades ago seem eerily prescient nowadays. Among these is the wonderful satire of The Truman Show. Directed by Peter Weir (Witness) and garnering an Original Screenplay Oscar for Andrew Niccol, it is a heartfelt and very human film, but one with a huge amount to say about the direction reality TV and commercialisation are going in, or rather, have gone in.
Almost every shot of the film watches Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), a man who believes himself to be living a fairly humdrum suburban existence. He has a mother, a wife, neighbours and friends. Little does he know, none of these people are real; every person in Truman’s life is an actor and Truman’s entire existence is one big TV show. Chosen from a group of ‘unwanted’ babies, Truman’s life is watched continuously by an audience of millions, with some even keeping the TV on as they sleep.
Re-watching The Truman Show today is fascinating. It must first be said that it is a terrific film. Told with the bittersweet heart of Weir’s Dead Poets Society, it is a film that has stood the test of time in its quality as well as its message. Yet what really plays in the mind is its place in the reality-TV timeline. Released just a year after Big Brother made its debut and almost a decade before Keeping Up with the Kardashians began our social media obsession with people whose names begin with K, The Truman Show presented a nightmare vision of reality TV taken to its logical conclusion.
What is abundantly clear with the slew of reality TV in the current era is that audiences are fascinated by people, and we like to watch what we think are real people, behaving in natural ways. Of course, these people often have lifestyles that are ridiculous compared to our own; the relationships on Made in Chelsea inspire gossip on a level most of us could only dream of. Yet, the more people complain that these shows are ‘constructed’ or just downright lies, the closer we will come to The Truman Show. The genius of the film is that it shows us what a truly successful at tempt at reality TV would be like.
As Truman begins to realise that his life is a lie and sets out on a path to escape, it would be easy for the film to be a simple exercise in sticking it to the nasty corporation. Yet, while Truman Burbank is an intriguing creation, the real genius here is in the character of Christof, and not just because he’s played by the superb Ed Harris. Christof is revered by the media as a brilliant innovator, but what the film points out is that some times great innovation requires great sacrifices. Just like many people are inspired by Kim Kardashian and see her as a role model, Christof points out that watching Truman is a great source of comfort and happiness to many around the world. Yet it is at the cost of his personal freedom.
Many reality stars have chosen their lifestyle and may well enjoy it, but, like Truman, some of them are having less and less control over their parts in the media circus. Kylie Jenner was just 10 years old when her family began their journey to superstardom, while the new generation have been born directly into the spotlight. Our love of a famous baby has always been clear, as the reaction to Prince Louis, destined to be photographed and commercialised, demonstrates. In The Truman Show, not only are the audience manipulated by the megalomanic but somehow genuinely caring Christof, Truman is the greatest victim of all.
Twenty years after the film’s magnificent ending, it has been proven right: we are all complicit in something we also disapprove of, yet it does bring us genuine joy. The madness of our obsession with reality TV is clear, but it is also borne out of a very human fascination with other humans. One day, it may all go a bit too far.