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13 October 1998

The Truman Sham

The Truman Burbank docu-soap has opened to general critical acclaim allied with widespread condemnation about the manner in which the media manipulates people's lives. David Nolan has a different take on what the film reveals about the media

The Truman Show is the latest of this year's very long list of heavily-hyped movies to open in the UK. Unusually for the normal blockbuster dross served up, this is a movie with a particularly clever take on the interaction between the media and people's lives. While there's nothing intriguing about Truman's empty life, nor about those who follow it through their TVs, the film carries a much misunderstood message which, rather than exposing media manipulation, reveals lot about the contempt the media has for its audience.

The Truman Show is the epitome of the docu-soap, fly on the wall documentary which has become a regular feature of TV listings. Every time we press the remote's button there is yet another programme about 'ordinary' people reflecting (or not, as the case may be) on the mundanity of their lives. The Truman Show is a docu-soap writ large, on an enormous scale but with a clever twist and a very thoughtful message.

Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey in an unusually 'straight' role for him, is a struggling insurance salesman in the curiously plastic American west coast town of Seahaven. He is married to a simpering wife who regularly tells us far more than we need to know about certain products she is about to use or eat (as do other characters) and leads a very ordinary life.

The twist is that (in case you have been out to lunch since the first trailers appeared in the Spring) the whole of Seahaven is on an island - on a television set. Truman's life is the subject of a 24 hours a day TV show aired live throughout the world. We're told he started life as the result of an unwanted pregnancy to become the most talked about and watched individual in the world. As we join him, Truman has reached thirty and is getting itchy feet. Like the majority of Americans, he does not own a passport - but then Truman has never even left his home town.

Seahaven is probably like many small American towns. The newspapers carry headlines like 'Who needs Europe?' always enforcing the 'you don't want to leave here' message to Truman who suffers from a fear of water which prevents him crossing the bridge to the mainland. The 'town' is filmed constantly by 5000 cameras, in the lapel badges of other characters, behind car radios and mirrors and in many other places - some so obvious you wonder if Truman is in fact 'camera blind'.

At the outset, Christof - the producer of the programme - justifies the stage-management of Truman's life with the allegation that people are reassured by the cocooned safety of Seahaven and comforted by Truman's ordinariness to the extent that they like to go to sleep with his sleeping face on their flickering TV screens. The producer of this global show tells us that 'Seahaven is the way the world should be'. Erm, no thanks, pal. A world shorn of all emotion apart from bland good humour may be some sort of spin doctored happy news media heaven. But for those of us with a life ... it sounds like hell by the sea.

We are however told about the 'very vocal minority' opposed to the staging of Truman's life in this manner. The 'Release Truman' campaign is run by a former extra in the show who sneaked a on-air kiss with him and then tried to explain that his whole life was a charade. Apart from that, a 'Cheers-like' bar where everybody goes to swap Truman stories and a couple of other glimpses of the people who spend their lives watching Truman's life, very little is shown of the real world.

Some critics have said that the film forces us to consider the manner in which the media manipulates our lives. The opposite is true. The media reflects the world around it. While many may watch the show, and enjoy it, as the truth slowly dawns on Truman there is a wave of support for him to lead his life beyond his dome. The film reveals the contempt the media has for its audience: it is the media which considers the inanity of Truman Burbank's life is worthy of such attention. And the idea that such enormous resources would go into a single show (24 hours a day or not) suggests that those who made this film have an outlandish sense of the depth of their funders' coffers. The dome which encases the set is on a scale far grander than anything Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson could dream up and is even apparently visible from the moon.

The whole presentation is the ultimate in dumbing down as the producers expect everybody to be satisfied with watching Truman live out his empty life in Seahaven. Reassuringly, the people in the 'real world' don't live up to those expectations.

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