On June 5th, 1998, The Truman Show opened in theaters all across America. Directed by Peter Weir and starring Jim Carrey, the film centers on Truman Burbank, a man who unknowingly participates in a reality show about his life since the day he was born. His entire world is a massive set, filled with actors who take the roles of his best friend, lover, employer, co-workers, mother, etc. Ed Harris plays Christof, the creator of Truman’s fictitious world and pseudo-God. He controls everything inside the set (along with Control Room Director, played by Paul Giamatti), from cueing extras to cross the street, to radio stations, and even the weather. Christof not only controls Truman’s world, but the way it is perceived by the mainstream audience. He controls what cameras are used and calls out musical cues to build additional drama to Truman’s ongoing “life.”
Throughout the film, we are shown characters in the "real world" watching “The Truman Show.” There is a bar full of patrons and its concerned wait staff, two parking garage security guards, old women on a couch, Truman's ex, and a guy in a bathtub. Throughout the film, we watch them watch, enamored by the happenings within their TV screen. They are watching true-fiction, a blend of truth (Truman) and fiction (everything around Truman). Their enjoyment and suspense come from not knowing what will happen next and how Truman will react and behave with whatever Christof throws his way.
We, the audience of The Truman Show watch as the fictional audience of the fictional “Truman Show” hold each other, cheer loudly, make bets, and genuinely feel for Truman. They freak out when Christof cuts transmission of the live-feed show and wait with bated breath for it to return – they have to know what happens next.
This form of filmmaking, where the real audience watches a fictional audience react is commonly found in sports films. In most sports films, there is at least one character in attendance (or watching on TV) of the final game/match. This is a tool used to help draw the audience in closer to the action and create a way for us to relate to the emotions occurring on screen. It helps bring a "real feel" to the drama ensuing because we are literally watching someone "really feel." Usually, as the climax of the sporting scene happens, the audience is shown the building tension and anticipation through the eyes of the supporting character watching (in addition to a musical score and a fictional announcer giving a play-by-play).
As the drama builds in The Truman Show and Truman embarks on his escape plan to leave his fictional world and enter the “real world,” we become sucked into the drama. We are willfully being manipulated to feel emotion by a media source by watching other people willfully be manipulated to feel emotion by a media source. We, like the fictional audience, know we are being played and are ok with it, because it's entertainment.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert said, “Television, with its insatiable hunger for material, has made celebrities into “content,” devouring their lives and secrets. If you think The Truman Show is an exaggeration, reflect that Princess Diana lived under similar conditions from the day she became engaged to Charles.”
Salon’s Charles Taylor said, “(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.”
These are reviews for a film that came out almost 20 years ago.
At the end of the film, Truman’s story reaches its conclusion and he exits his fake world. The bar patrons cheer, the old women cry, the guy in the tub splashes in excitement, a literal overflowing emotion. The very final scene in the film is of the two parking garage security guards. Mouths full of pizza, one asks the other, “What else is on?” The other agrees to see what else is on, then, original guard asks, “Where’s the TV guide?”
Like the snap of a finger, they are on to the next thing to watch and to consume. It almost seems like they’ve completely forgotten the emotionally journey they just witnessed on live TV. The exact thing they were so incredibly passionate about just moments before is now faded into their background.
With Election Day finally upon us, I feel as though we are the fictional audience in the The Truman Show watching the final moments as Truman braves Christof’s created storm and sails to the edge of his world, not knowing what is on the other side. We are being shown exactly what we’re supposed to be shown by the media in order to get the biggest emotional draw out of us. In the film, Christof had live music play under the scenes in order to build more emotion for the viewers. Now, we have network commercials pleading us to watch their channel because they have the best coverage of what could possibly be the most important night in modern day America.
When asked why Truman never attempted to leave his world before, Christof answered: "We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented. It's as simple as that"
We’ve seen the drama unfurl for both parties in their campaigns, from “Pussy-Gate” to the Comey letter two weeks ago. All of these moments have set the stage and tonight is the climax to the story. Tonight, we sail to the edge of our known world and decide whether we want to walk through the exit door or not.
If Facebook had existed in 1998, imagine the statuses of all the fictional viewers watching “The Truman Show.” The last few weeks have seen an overflow of political statuses and links, everyone urging and pleading and arguing. Go on to Facebook today and people are as emotional as ever before.
Tonight will come, and there will be an end to all of this.
What I fear most though, is that tomorrow, everyone will be just like the two parking lot security guards; stuffed from consumption and easily swayed to move on from something they deeply cared about, searching for the topic the media insists they care about next.