Short Paper 3
in the Moon:
“The Truman Show”
Watching a film can leave the viewer with the troubling matter of how to discuss it. Should his own thoughts and observations be the sole guide, or should they also discuss others' comments and reactions? One person may notice something that another has missed. The incorporation of others’ ideas is often useful and important, and allows for a more three-dimensional analysis. "The Truman Show," however, is not such a film. It paves a path best walked alone. It is up to each person to judge what he has observed and then determine what he feels is right.
First, consider the premise of the film and what eventually happens. 30-year-old Truman Burbank’s life is best summarized by Christof’s statement: “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” And it is true, because Truman is completely unaware of the fact that his world is an artificial construction, a television show that has watched his life unfold since before he was born.
The brainchild of Christof, a self-proclaimed visionary and the man who created it, the television program itself is called “The Truman Show.” The pseudo-town of Seahaven, supposedly set on an island somewhere, is actually a massive sound stage, contained within the largest dome ever created. The thousands of town residents are all actors. The moon is actually a façade for the enormous control room from which Christof and his crew constantly oversee and control the program.
Gradually, though, Truman comes to question this world of his. He doesn’t seem to know the full truth of the situation—that he is on TV, and his life is the show—until near the end, but he begins finding hints that something is amiss, and he notices things he hadn’t before. As he starts to question the world around him, he begins seeking answers, and he tries to determine and expose whatever behind-the-scenes mechanisms are at work. By the time the movie is over, Truman will have quite literally reached the end of the world—he tries to sail away from the island, only to have his ship crash into the horizon! Truman looks above him and sees that the “sky” is actually nothing more than a painted wall, the edge of the set. He finds solid ground behind the perimeter of the “sea,” and a half-visible staircase leads up to a door marked EXIT. Speaking directly from above, Christof reveals the truth to Truman and asks him to stay in Seahaven, where nothing really goes wrong. But Truman leaves the safety and comfort of “The Truman Show” and walks through the door to enter into the real world.
What lies at the heart of this movie seems to be a propagandistic message of sorts about freedom from religion, sort of a cinematic rendition of the Humanist Manifesto. The two primary characters’ names—Truman Burbank and Christof—have been much discussed, but something of a revisionist reading is possible.
The bulk of the movie’s message lies in the ending and the events leading up to it. Truman Burbank is a man whose entire 30 years of existence have been controlled and manipulated. The “architect” of Truman’s life is Christof, whose name must certainly be meant to resemble “Christ.” But Christof is portrayed as a Svengali, a manipulative, controlling dictator, and his “victim” is Truman. The movie suggests, it seems, that religion is essentially a myth that ensnares people in a false world of deceit and prevents them from being able to see reality or experience it. Truman Burbank, then, is a “true man” in that he is one of the very few people who (are able to) become enlightened and escape, thereby finding the truth.
There must be more to it, though. Why Christof, a specific reference to Christ, instead of a name that references God the Father? On one hand, Christof is—within his own self-made world, and through his own self-assigned power—very much a godlike character, able to control everything from the elements to the sunrise. Christof sees all. He can “kill off” and “resurrect” people, (such as Truman’s presumed-dead father, by writing them into or out of the script. He insists on almost blind obedience to every direction he gives his cast and crew.
But more importantly, in the Trinity, Jesus Christ is the Savior, and there seems to be a distinction being made between ‘religion’s Savior’ and the ‘real savior.’ Truman also has a great deal of Christ imagery linked to him, and the film’s suggestion seems to be that we don’t need some ‘God or Christ in the sky’ (as religion has) but that we are our own savior figure—even if there is a higher power, which there almost certainly isn’t anyway, man has no need for him. Christof is hardly made out as an admirable character. He is self-serving, manipulative, and his power is largely special effects and smoke-and-mirrors. Even more to the point, he’s not really a creator of anything real, and he didn’t create Truman.
Some of the Christ images or references become apparent through a closer look at parts of the film's ending. Of interest is the ship that Truman sails: the Santa Maria. This is an interesting, doubly symbolic name. First, the Santa María was a ship used by Columbus in his voyage to the New World, which Truman also reaches, albeit in the sense of ‘the real world,’ which he has never set foot upon before. Equally importantly, though, is the use of Santa Maria as the name sometimes used to refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus. If we say that the movie presents us with Truman Burbank as the real savior figure, then it would only make sense that the Santa Maria carries him just as the Virgin Mary carried Jesus.
As Truman sails in the ship, Christof summons a great storm. His goal is to scare Truman into returning to the town, but Christof's control-room operators protest that the storm might drown Truman. "The whole world is watching," one of them tells Christof. "We can't let him die in front of a live audience." Christof simply replies, "He was born in front of a live audience." Then he adds: "He's not willing to risk his life. His doubts will turn him back." Shortly thereafter, the storm overtakes the ship and topples it, throwing Truman about and knocking him unconscious. He lies still, arms extended, and some of the ropes connected to the ship complete the crucifixion and cross-like resemblance.
Possibly the most interesting part of the ship is the sail, which displays the ship’s number 139. There is only one book of the Bible with a 139th chapter, and that is Psalms. In it (see below), the psalmist shows a deep submission to God and readily acknowledges that the Lord knows everything about him. It tells how God knows, sees and hears all, every waking moment of our lives and before we were born, and even things we have not yet done or said.
Now consider that Christof created or placed everything in his program’s world, including the ship; perhaps it is a claim by Christof of his own omniscience; a closer look at the lengthy psalm reveals many parallels between it and Truman’s life. All of this would be well-suited to the “freedom from religion” school of thought, which would surely mock or deny or criticize the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing God. Furthermore, it may be used as another sort of mockery, of Christof, who clearly is not “omni-anything.” See verse 9-10, for example, and then consider that Truman has “settled on the far side of the sea” (the edge of the false world) and Christof does try to “guide” him and “hold (him) fast”—he tries to prevent Truman from leaving.
Finally, consider the last couple of moments in the film, when Christof tells his technician to let him speak directly to Truman (for the first time). Visually mimicking what Jesus did, Truman has already “walked on water,” sort of—or at least he looks like he is doing so; he’s actually walking along the perimeter just behind the edge of the water tank. He has now ascended a barely visible staircase, and a door built into the wall reads “EXIT” in small letters.
Then Christof speaks from above, in a booming voice, and explains all. At one point, he says, “I’m the creator.” Shortly thereafter, he also says, “You can leave if you want. I won’t try to stop you. But you won’t survive out there. You don’t know what to do, where to go.” Significantly, he also says, “Truman, I’ve watched you your whole life. I saw you take your first step, your first word, your first kiss. I know you better than you know yourself.”
In the spirit of the “freedom from religion” notion, this scene comments on religion and God as trying to convince people that reality and truth are dangerous, in the hopes that those people will be fooled into staying in the “safety” of the false world. Religion, says this concept, tries to inspire fear in us to stay. Christof adds, “Truman, there’s no more truth out there than in the world I created for you – the same lies and deceit. But in my world you have nothing to fear.”
In the “safety” of religion’s world, we’re told, everything is artificial and a lie, and we have no true free will because everything is controlled and God manipulates according to his whims. But Truman, as the “true man” and his own savior, decides to take the risk and go out into the real world, whatever perils may accompany it. Freed from the falsity of religion and free to choose his own path, Truman initially considers carefully the speech from Christof. But finally he pushes open the door, revealing the darkened corridor behind it, and he takes his first steps toward the unknown—the real world he has never known.
Some people make a case for the film as being pro-Christian. I could have argued in a completely different direction than I did. The film is beautifully shot, and the visual imagery and symbolism are striking and intriguing. Yet as stunning and imaginative as it is, I won't support the philosophy that I think it's advancing, and I won't make a case for a pro-Christian interpretation, because I don't believe it is true. The God I know is not the one who is portrayed here. I believe the Christ(of) we see is the product of people who believe religion is for the feeble-minded and gullible. The movie is imaginative, a marvelous painting; it is great for a philosophy class, especially if they’re studying Sartre. From an aesthetic standpoint, the film is gorgeous. From one person's religious standpoint, however, it is far, far less impressive.
1 O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.
You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake,
I am still with you.
If only you would slay the wicked, O God!
Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!
They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD,
and abhor those who rise up against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1984.
The Truman Show. Dir. Peter Weir. Paramount Pictures, 1998.