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It would be easy to dismiss The Truman Show as a simple commentary on the ethics of reality TV as the genre evolved during the ’90s. It is easy to forget that it was released in the summer 1998, when the reality TV craze was in its infancy. “The Real World” was entering its seventh season, “Road Rules” had debuted in 1995 but the “Survivors,” “American Idols” and “Big Brothers” of the world were still a few years away. The Truman Show may have been prescient in its zeitgeisty depiction of a reality program a little ahead of its time, but that is merely a layer, and a surface one at that, to the depth of meaning that makes this movie so vital.

As the film has aged it has become an overlooked commentary about the effects of the intrusion of media into one’s personal space. The schizophrenia and paranoid delusions that haunt Truman as he comes to terms with his reality ring true today in an age where one can shape and present themselves as whomever they want to be via social media, regardless of the content that one houses behind that façade. It is the tension between those dueling realities that propels the film.

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Truman’s “show wife” Meryl, played to Stepford-esque perfection by Laura Linney, states at the beginning of the movie that “for me there is no difference between my private life and my public life -my life is my life.” As the movie progresses the spool of that reality begins to unravel for all of the players and the viewer comes to understand the tenuous nature of one’s own identity while watching their lives come undone. We see it in Truman as his milquetoast reality, televised 24 hours a day, is shattered when his TV dad sneaks back onto the set despite the fact that he had been killed off from the show 20 years prior. The sequence that follows, chasing his father against the tide of extras sent to thwart him, stopping traffic in the town square and stretching his arm out as if to symbolize his transition from a caricature into a man is brilliantly paced and utterly gripping. We see it in Meryl, at first so content in blurred lines of her professional life, when she later screams at the cameras to “do something!” after Truman grabs her in a fit of paranoid rage. We see it in the megalomaniacal Christof, played by Ed Harris, who speaks to Truman as if he is his Holy Father, a voice from the heavens, a mere five minutes after trying to kill him while Truman sails to the outer edges of his world.

It’s a tale as old as Plato himself, essentially a retelling of his allegory of the cave, substituting a TV show for the shapes on the side of that cave, illuminated by the flames that surround the chained spectators. As it was in the time of the Golden Age of Athens, it is a timeless story and the update that The Truman Show gives it deserves your consideration even more today than it did in 1998.

by Tom Volk

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