Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Forty

#40 — The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)
For me, part of loving movies has long included gathering and consuming as much information about them as I could possibly find. I’d seek out stories about deals getting pulled together, tracking how the ongoing traffic of writers, directors and actors following the route of their respective careers were leading to fascinating intersections of sensibilities. I tore through feature stories about pending releases, and dutifully read every word of the forecasts of seasonal movie slates that showed up in publications like Premiere and Entertainment Weekly. And I perhaps took the greatest pleasure in watching previews, practically rejoicing every time that band of bright green cut to footage of some new unseen film, considering what I could glean about its contents from the information shared and concealed in those couple of enticing minutes. Most of the time, I knew a lot about a movie before it arrived. Rarely have I regretted that more than with Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.

It’s not that the film was spoiled because I had a working knowledge of its plot before the theater lights went down. Weir is probably too thoughtful and thorough of a director to ever get stuck with a project that was reliant purely on surprising the audience in order to be effective. But he also constructed his film, boldly I think, to keep the high concept hook of the plot concealed for a surprisingly long time. The screenplay by Andrew Niccol instead operates in tandem with the lead character, Truman Burbank, following his progress through his seemingly idyllic life, a life tinged by just enough fearful reticence to keep him safely ensconced within it. The audience tags along, provided only marginally more knowledge about the exterior manipulations on Truman’s life, most of those conveyed with little more than an odd camera angle here and there. It’s fascinating to watch the film unfold this way, catching the hints and nuances slipped into the material, but there’s a heady allure to the unattainable prospect of watching it with no foreknowledge. Even if it wouldn’t be all that hard to guess what’s going on–Weir’s meticulous approach also bespeaks a resounding clarity in his storytelling–it would be interesting to start this ride in the dark.

No matter how it’s approached, Weir’s film shimmers with sharp, relevant themes about our voyeuristic culture, the way people in American society are helpless when the dirty details of personal lives are laid before them. What’s more, it wisely gets at the sense of ownership that develops over the people we watch on television, a tendency that creates tricky problems when it’s fictional characters on the screen. Change them to real people, and the moral quandary expands exponentially. Weir’s film was timely upon it’s release and the following decade-plus filled with Gosselins and Kardashians has only served to prove the hypothesis. As usual, Weir brings this to the screen with images of casual ingenuity, marked by beautiful composition and almost dreamlike, mildly mesmerizing cinematography by Peter Biziou. It is a film realized with the utmost care, delivering a shrewd message, and delivering it beautifully.

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