Pop Optics: The Truman Show and the Sudden Realization Your Life is a Lie

There’s a moment in The Truman Show where our titular character, Truman Burbank, stares dead-eye into his bathroom mirror. This gives pause to two technicians in the observation room as they suspect that perhaps Truman has finally figured them out and spotted the camera carefully hidden in the mirror. Eventually, their panic is soothed when Truman breaks his pose and starts drawing a helmet on the mirror with a bar of soap. He was merely playing around and to them, it appears things are back to normal.

Except they’re not and my suspicion is aroused the minute that Truman gleefully says “That one’s for free.”

That one’s for free.

What is that referring to? What was free? Who was it free for?

On my nth viewing of this film, that phrase has stuck out to me and it didn’t take me long to realize that when he utters such a seemingly innocuous quip he’s hinting to the unseen audience that he’s figured it out.

He knows he’s just a character in a made up world.

Think about his behaviors in the scenes following that one. Up until then, Truman was rather subdued, meek, and quaint. Quirky, sure. Jim Carrey knew to pull back on his zanier traits to give Truman a softer pathos. Truman is someone who is naturally funny and witty, but only when they feel comfortable expressing themselves. His whole life, he was conditioned to be compliant and subservient because if his more confrontational tendencies were allowed to thrive, then they’d have seen him try to break loose a hell of a lot sooner.

So, Truman is just Carrey dialing himself down to a 4 or 5, but the minute he wipes away the soap from the mirror (with a squeaky streak-free shine) and gives a knowing smile, he’s ready to dial up to a Carrey 7, which would be a Truman 10. His expressions and speech are a tad more boisterous, exaggerated. How he greets his neighbors across the street to deliver his signature catchphrase is not the delivery one gives after a night where they just watched their marriage fall apart and find out their father isn’t really dead. It is that of a television character. You could say he’s putting up a facade and not letting on that he’s truly broken up (especially knowing that his “wife” had their fingers crossed in their wedding photo) but I’m going to say that this is more Truman hiding that he knows what’s going on and tricking everyone else into thinking the status quo will go unrocked.

From there, Truman has in him more life than he has ever been witnessed to have throughout the film. Again, we, the film viewer, have seen little to suggest that Truman isn’t always “on” like this, but we’re now swinging into the final act of the film. Everything must be heightened as we hurtle towards the climax otherwise Truman’s life goes on, trapped in his bubble-verse.

Before this moment, though, there were other things that, if you think about them, would make you suspicious. Truman has a pretty good observation about the world around him when he goes to inform his “best friend” Marlon. He claps his hands loudly in a shop and asks Marlon if anyone turned around or noticed. Marlon says no and Truman’s hypothesis is proven true. No one reacted.

No one. Reacted.

In real life, if you were in a crowded or small space and made a loud noise, most people would instinctively turn around and look in the direction of the sound. We’re intrinsically aware of our surroundings. The slightest disturbance causes a reaction of some kind. We would notice if someone decided to make a spectacle of themselves.

Not in Truman’s world. Not in Seahaven where the residents are just actors who must not interfere, who must not break character in effort to carefully maintain the reality crafted by Ed Harris in a sweet cap. Everyone outside of the central cast are just NPC’s with better programming.

Too good programming. Too smooth. They’re not walking continuously into immovable objects, unsure of how to walk around them. They just act as filler. They’re decoration.

Truman picks up on this when he’s sitting in his car and shows his wife the loop three people are on. An endless circuit that only breaks when he’s not around, but as long as he’s there, they have to keep going otherwise it’s just empty space in the scene.

He pieces these things together and starts to get a better sense of the image developing before him. The world around him is not spontaneous. It is being controlled in some manner. Actions are dictated. Situations crafted that feel like more than coincidence. The repetitious nature of common scenes.

It’s too real to be real.

Ultimately, The Truman Show is a film about questioning reality and fate. If we accept what we perceive to be real, then how does that feed into our concept of fate? Are we not destined for better things if the world around us seemingly prevents us from ever progressing? Truman waxes fantastical about departing Seahaven for Fiji, with probably little understanding of what the real world is like outside his own. He knows that this is where a girl he harbors a secret crush for lives because he was told that’s where she was going. Because he can only take people for their word, that whatever they say is true, then he accepts this lie as truth. She’s in Fiji and he’s stuck in Seahaven, trapped by a fear of crossing a bridge.

Yes, it’s a lot more complex than that, but I feel like we could lose hours of our days discussing what is truth in Truman’s (true man, get it?) reality. The world crafted for him is one out of 1950s western television. It’s a reality where love conquers all and family is the most important thing. Where traditional values are performative and all your problems can be solved with just a hot cup of cocoa. It’s a fabrication that undoubtedly would leave Truman unprepared to life outside the studio. He has no basis for how the world is beyond Seahaven. Even when he asks he gets rebuffed and told that there’s no place like Seahaven. Everything you could ever need is right here.

Someone smarter than me could probably draw parallels between this film and Plato’s Cave because I feel like this is a good interpretation on that, at least in the inverse. Everything that happens in Seahaven, Truman assumes to be real, but once he discovers that everything is not, his reality is upended. The life he lived was by design and he now wants to escape because this revelation confirms two things: that he was being watched and that there is a world beyond this one. He no longer exists in the real world – he never existed in the real world. The world in which he lived was not real. It was theater, an exhibition. He must break free to find the real world and assume a new reality. However, it will be quite the shock for him when he finally does see what life is like outside of Seahaven, but that’s a contemplation for another entry.

Random Observation

The guy who watches The Truman Show in his bathtub also played Napoleon in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Also, your reality isn’t real. No, this isn’t a computer simulation, but… your life has been a lie for quite some time. You should probably do something about it.