❉ Nick Clement on one of the most disturbing and prophetic films from the last 20 years.
“Jim Carrey was absolutely brilliant, subverting the silly-man image he’d cultivated for a few years before dropping this dramatic bombshell during the summer of 1998; people groomed on The Mask, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and Dumb and Dumber were in for something different.”
The Truman Show is one of the most disturbing and prophetic films from the last 20 years. Directed with extreme care by the great Peter Weir (Witness, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) and written by the crafty Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, Lord of War, Simone), who always seems one step ahead of everyone else, this is a sad film about stolen identity, the loss of innocence, the understanding of evil, and how one man decides to finally think and act for himself after years of bowing to the expected norm. It’s also a pointed critique of celebrity-culture and reality television, made all the more alarming in that the modern reality television boom was just beginning when this film was released. Jim Carrey was absolutely brilliant, subverting the silly-man image he’d cultivated for a few years before dropping this dramatic bombshell during the summer of 1998; people groomed on The Mask, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and Dumb and Dumber were in for something different.
The fact that The Truman Show came out in the popcorn movie season, and grossed $130 million domestic after rapturous critical response, is still one of the coolest cinematic notions I can think of. Just think about it for a moment – a movie built on ideas becoming a huge success in the mostly brain dead, CGI summer movie landscape. It seems almost too good to be true. And I’m not so sure that this movie would do that sort of business if it were to be released this summer, or next summer.
Both of the moment and completely ahead of its time, The Truman Show sought to expose the fraudulent nature of reality television [then in its infancy] in the darkest way possible, while skewering the notion of fifteen minutes of fame, and seeking to examine the fallacies of everyday life. Ed Harris was gripping in an Oscar nominated performance as the magician behind the scenes, calling all the shots in poor Truman’s life, and the way that he truly feels that he’s his father in the final act, and most especially in those heartbreaking and liberating final scenes, still creeps me out to this day.
Peter Biziou’s tricky and stylish cinematography took on a uniquely voyeuristic aesthetic, and Weir’s decisions to set the story in a bright and sunny and antiseptic seaside town as opposed to Niccol’s originally scripted rainy, nighttime=dominated, and noir-ish NYC, was a stroke of visual and thematic genius. Take some of the most frightening emotional material ever conjured up and place it inside of a friendly, sterile environment that would seem inviting to anyone.
Dennis Gassner’s exquisite and duplicitous production design is worthy of intense study, as it’s always working to suppress the behind-the-scenes shenanigans while giving off a radiant, scarily friendly vibe. The concluding moments of this film with Truman heading up that perfectly surreal set of steps still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and the decision on the part of the filmmakers to smash cut to black in the exact fashion that they did will always remain one of the best storytelling decisions that I can think of.
The absolutely insane supporting cast was an embarrassment of riches, including the stunningly beautiful Natascha McElhone, cocky-funny Paul Giamatti, tack-sharp Laura Linney, everyone’s best buddy Noah Emmerich, Harry Shearer, and Philip Baker Hall. The ensemble was in total synch in this film, allowing Carrey and Harris to totally dominate, while still providing the film with warmth and edge where needed. Producer Scott Rudin first approached Brian De Palma (and then many others) to direct before hiring Weir, who it must be said is filmmaker comfortable in many genres. The absolute final shot of this work of art stings with such ironic humor that it hurts to laugh. It’s one of the great existential films of the 1990s, and a film that has only gained in its masterfulness as the years have progressed.
❉ ‘The Truman Show’ (1998) is available in the UK as a Region Free, single disc Blu-Ray from Paramount Home Entertainment, RRP £19.99.
❉ Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.