Honestly, I know The Truman Show was meant to mix comedy with drama (it’s Jim Carrey. Need I say more?) but damn, thinking about the discussions today around surveillance and privacy, it felt more like a psychological horror film than a touching drama, more like reading 1984 by George Orwell (and we all know how horrifying that book was). But a truly brilliant psychological horror film that forces you to sit back and think.
I watched it a long time ago in middle school English class, but it never really stuck with me, except for that one scene where they show Truman Burbank as a fetus. As a 12 year old that scared the hell out of me for some weird reason and that image never left my memory. I know you’re like, Grow up, it’s a damn fetus. They ain’t supposed to look cute. But some scenes in movies stick with you; I’m sure you all feel the same about IT, Deadpool or Aliens, neither which I have the courage to watch. One minute you’re watching the film, thinking it’ll be just a bunch of cheesy effects; the next day, you scream everytime you see a red balloon. Thanks a lot, Pennywise.
But I decided to revisit it, especially since I don’t even remember if our English class even made it through the film (I’m pretty sure that the bell rang before we could finish, and I think we had to move on to another unit in the curriculum anyway, so we didn’t have time to finish). So fast forward to this year, 2020, about a decade after seeing it as a naive sixth grader, and bam! my view of the movie has totally changed. Why? Because the conversations around surveillance and privacy have gotten more disturbing and real by the minute. The Truman Show is about a man named Truman Burbank who finds out that his whole life has been a literal TV show (back then I wouldn’t have gotten the significance of Truman’s last name, but after visiting Hollywood, it’s telling that Truman’s last name is that of a city where a lot of media and entertainment companies happen to be, such as Warner Bros., Disney and Nickelodeon). Out of six or so unwanted pregnancies, he was chosen to be the star of this show, and so from his childhood to his adulthood, all the people in his life (friends, parents, girlfriend, coworkers, etc.) are all actors in his television show. Or rather, not his show, per say, but the show that a manipulative man named Christof created with Truman as the main star of his own show. So Truman is walking around life as an adult at the beginning, thinking his life is real: his wife is supposed to be really married to him, his friend is supposed to be someone he can trust with his secrets, and his coworkers are supposed to be everyday people he encounters at his regular 9-5 job.
However, no one is. They are all actors on The Truman Show. And they are watching his every move to ensure he stays on the script that Christof has written for him. Not only that, but billions of people watch Truman brush his teeth, go to work everyday, kiss his wife, and go to sleep. Looking at the poster now for the film (it came out in 1998) it sent chills down my spine to see all these people looking up at this screen and watching what this regular-ass person enjoy his private time to sleep at night. Of course, towards the middle of the film, Truman finds out that everyone around him is fake, after he becomes suspicious that the radio personality is tracking his every move, that people are watching him and know everything about his personal life, and the little opening of the studio where he briefly glimpses a table of pastries and coffee and a bunch of extras and TV production personnel milling about. Not to mention the messed-up fact that Sylvia, the girl he likes, isn’t supposed to talk to him, not because of his looks or her homework, but because she is one of the extras in the film and Kristof wrote it so that Truman would end up with a woman named Meryl instead of Sylvia. She is the only one who tells Truman the truth (e.g. that his life is a TV production) and speaks out against Christof’s psychological abuse of Truman.
Although the ending of the film is optimistic (Truman resists Christof’s effects of controlling his destiny in the climatic scene towards the end where Truman escapes the Hollywood set on which he has lives his whole life and sails out to see, with Christof trying to reign him back in by sending thunderstorms and crashing waves that would deter Truman’s progress in sailing) I still could not help feeling unsettled after the film. I wish I could have just laughed it off, but why would I? Sure it stars Jim Carrey, aka The Grinch and Bruce Almighty, roles that are meant to be light-hearted and silly (not to mention his parody of Vanilla Ice on In Living Color. Hi-LARIOUS). But the movie’s supposed to make you sit there for a while and think about a lot of questions: what is reality? what are the psychological effects of reality TV shows on not just audiences, but on the people who star in these shows? what is the impact of media on how we see reality?
To be honest, this film scared me because even though it’s fiction, I think it has a pretty important place in discussions about privacy and surveillance. Truman couldn’t live his life without people watching his every move. He couldn’t go to sleep at night without some random guy he’s never met watching him sleep from his bathtub. He can’t hug his own dad (also an actor in the show) without random people in the crowded bar oohing and aahing during this tender private moment. He can’t even go out to sea on his own without Christof tracking his every move. And forget about him living those unborn months chilling out in his mom’s belly without the prying eyes of viewers: people have been watching that, too. When I thought of this movie, I thought about all of the issues we have today concerning surveillance capitalism and privacy: third parties collect our information, our moves are being tracked constantly, and for a while we had hackers that can see what your room looks on Zoom (I guess with Zoom’s new policies, that’s changing).
I understand we don’t really have a choice right now to opt out due to the current situation with COVID-19 and how to do contact tracing to flatten the curve and get people to stay home if they’ve been near someone with COVID-19. That’s what we’ve got to do. However, you give up a lot of your right to privacy because these apps ask for a lot of your personal data so they can track how the virus spreads and preventing people who have it from going outside and giving it to others. I’m sure we can address the privacy issue in a constructive way and that technology companies can do their part (or are already doing their part) in keeping people’s information safe, and I’m sure these apps are all doing great things to flatten the curve, but until then I’ve been hearing about a lot of issues with regard to the lack of confidentiality given to people’s information when they’re being tracked for COVID-19.
Update as of 5/14/20: I stopped writing this for a while because I was burnt out from ranting so much negative energy in this post and reflected on how I could end this post on a positive note. Everyone is already stressed out about the current pandemic, so I don’t want to end on a downer. Because like I said, overall I really loved The Truman Show and I’m glad I watched it. But I was talking with some friends about the movie and one of them said that from a Nichiren Buddhist perspective, in a way we are the directors of our own movie, so that gave me a more optimistic idea about the film. Truman in the end actually does triumph over Christof’s control of his destiny and begins the journey of living his own life. SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says that
“Buddhism teaches that the individual writes and performs the script for his or her own life. Neither chance nor a divine being writes the script for us. We write it, and we are the actors who play it.”Daisaku Ikeda
To end on a positive note, I want to leave you with this video from an SGI-USA segment called The Buddha Beat (it’s where the quote from President Ikeda comes from). Honestly it helped me see The Truman Show from a more uplifting perspective than the one I previously held.