The Truman Show

  • Title:  The Truman Show
  • Director:  Peter Weir
  • Date:  1998
  • Studio:  Paramount Pictures
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Cast:  Jim Carrey, Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Natascha McElhone
  • Format:   Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Seahaven is the way the world should be.” – Christof

“Cue the sun.” – Christof

Imagine if your whole world – everyone you knew, every place you’d ever seen, every memory you had, was, in a sense – not real. Your very life had been manipulated from before your birth, and that all of this was completely unknown to you. That’s the theme of The Truman Show, one of the most innovative and unusual films ever made.

Truman Burbank has an almost perfect life, living in the small island community of Seahaven. His wife is a nurse, and he works selling insurance. Truman sometimes dreams of going off on an adventure, or of being an explorer, but his daily life is quite dull, though perfect.

Then one day, as he’s about to get into his car to drive to work, a studio light crashes to the ground, nearly hitting his car. Truman thinks it’s strange, until the radio explains a plane flying over Seahaven began shedding parts. Yet, slowly, but surely, more and more strange things begin happening. Truman remembers a girl he was interested in, Lauren, the girl with a red sweater and a button that said, “How is it going to end?” but before he could really pursue a relationship with her, another girl, a cute blonde is literally dropped in his lap. Truman meets Lauren again at the library – and they try to run off together, but she is picked up and dragged away by her “father”.

As we know from scenes in Truman’s present – he marries the blonde, Meryl. But in his present, another encounter is harder to explain – he sees his father on the street. His father had died years ago, falling overboard and drowning when their sailboat was caught in a storm. Truman is disturbed by the encounter, and doesn’t quite buy the explanations offered by his mother and his wife. He meets up with his best friend, Marlin, and they have a heart-to-heart. Yet we see the Director, Christof, feeding lines to Marlin over a hidden earpiece. As the conversation concludes, a man walks out of the fog and smoke. It’s Truman’s lost father. But we see this momentous event through the eyes of the Director and his technical aides – as he orders the fog machine to back off, orders the arrangement of shots and cameras, and even has the music fade up.

Then we see the title sequence of “The Truman Show” which explains that Truman was born on camera, he was legally adopted by a Corporation, that millions had watched his first step and his “stolen kiss” (with Lauren), etc. Next is a cut to a talk show, “Tru Talk”, and an interview with Christof, the Director. Truman’s entire life is a TV show – aired 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, without interruption or advertisements. It’s revenue comes from product placement – and everything on the show is for sale in “The Truman Catalog”. The rest of the cast are actors, paid to interact with Truman. The Director manipulates everything to create “good television”.

Yet, despite the return of his father, Truman continues to question, continues to push.

He walks into a travel agency – an agency with posters, not of beautiful island paradises, but of planes hit by lightening, and of dire warnings of other Bad Things that can happen to the unwary traveller. When Truman tries to buy a plane ticket, he’s told there’s nothing for two months.

Next, he kidnaps his wife and spontaneously drives off. He gets her to drive from the passenger seat with one hand on the steering wheel of the car over a bridge over water to the “mainland”, something Truman himself is afraid to do. As they continue to drive, they hear sirens – and find an accident at a Nuclear Plant, with men in hazmat and fire-proof suits. A uniformed police officer tells them they can’t continue – but the cop makes a mistake when Truman agrees to turn around and says, “You’re welcome, Truman.” Truman tries again to escape, but he’s captured.

There’s a clip of Christof explaining that Meryl will leave Truman and a new “love interest” introduced. And that he’s “determined to have the first on-air conception” on the show.

But Truman has other ideas. He pretends to go back to his old self, continues to sell insurance, and “acts normal”. But one night, he sneaks in to his basement, creates a sleeping dummy with a recording of snores, and hides in a closet, then breaks out through a hole. This is discovered by the Director, who’s in his control room on the moon. First, Marlin is sent to find out if Truman is really sleeping (he discovers the deception). Then the entire cast and all extras are sent to search for Truman, they step in a long line, perfectly in time, arms linked, to a frightening sound reminiscent of goose-stepping. The group even has barking dogs. Having already ceased transmission, Christof is desperate to find his star. He uses the moon as a searchlight. Finally, even though it’s too early, he turns on the sun.

Christof realizes the one place he hasn’t searched is the sea. He finds Truman on a sailing boat, and begins transmitting pictures again. The audience begins to root for Truman’s escape, especially Lauren who leads some sort of protest group that wants Truman freed. As Truman tries to make his escape, Christof orders a storm. When his orders to stop Truman escalate to killing him by capsizing the boat – the other directors and technicians finally protest and refuse. Christof increases the storm and Truman falls off the boat and into the water. Christof turns off the storm and Truman, not drowned, coughs up the water and makes it back onto the boat. At this point, Christof says he wants to talk to Truman.

Christof’s voice appears to come from a break in the clouds.

“Who are you?” asks Truman.

“I am the creator of a television show that gives hope, and joy, and inspiration to millions,” replies Christof.

“Who am I?” asks Truman.

“You are the star,” replies Christof.

Christof then tells Truman he has watched him since he was born, saw him take his first step, watched him cut his first tooth. Truman still is determined to leave Christof’s giant television studio. He’s awakened when his boat hits the wall of the studio, and he walks, apparently on water, around the edge, until he finds a stair case. Finally, Truman climbs the stairs and exits the door. Christof orders “Cease Transmission”.

But the meta of the film is carried over into the credits which are listed in three parts: Truman’s World, Christof’s World, and the Viewers. Only the characters in Truman’s World have names – other than Christof and “Chloe” in Christof’s world characters are listed by their job description, “Control Room Director”, “Network Exceutive”, “Keyboard Artist”, etc. Similarly, the audience members are listed by descriptions, “bar waitress”, “Man in Bathtub”, “Japanese Family”, etc.

The Truman Show is a deep and fascinating film. Originally almost dismissed as a commentary on the “new” phenomena of Reality Television, it’s actually a deeply philosophical film. The Director is God – he’s created Truman’s entire world. He controls all of Truman’s encounters. If an actor becomes difficult or complains – they are removed from the show. New characters are introduced – giving the Director the show he wants – creating situations that Truman should respond to in predictable ways, such as dropping Meryl in his lap. Even what the actors say is at times scripted or suggested by Christof – such as Meryl insipid product placement lines (which she always delivers badly) or in a more serious scene, Christof feeding lines to Marlin to give to Truman. When the reality starts to break down, Truman’s search to find Lauren, to escape to Fiji, is really an attempt to understand his world and discover who he really is. It’s not accidental at all, that when Christof first speaks to Truman, it’s a voice, from the sun, peaking out from clouds, after a storm. That’s  a very Christian image. Though the entire story is of Truman’s fight to push the boundaries of his world and control his own fate, rather than stay safe, in a world created for him. Christof loses his battle, when Truman wins.

Besides the Christian implications, there’s another whole level to the film – the meta implications. Although the first half of the film stays in Truman’s world, but often with lens hazing or a curved perspective (like the really old shots in films that indicated a character was looking through binoculars or a telescope), once he meets his father, we are introduced to Christof’s World. We hear Christof defending his perspective. We hear Lauren, an actress named Sylvia, attack Christof on the “Tru Talk” call-in talk show program. And we see the audience watching the show and making comments – and eventually rooting for Truman’s escape. It’s a film, about a fictional television show, that shows us the director making that show, and the audience watching that show. It’s just so meta it practically defines the term.

And in many ways, this seventeen-year-old film predicts in a non-specific way, our world of constant Social Media interaction. The give-and-take and interaction between viewers and makers of film and television via websites, social media, Live Tweet Events, etc. The creating of profiles to emphasize what we want others to know about us and de-emphasize or even hide what we don’t want others to know about us. The putting on a friendly face, that can be an act as much as Truman’s wife and best friend act a certain way towards him. Though, to it’s credit, Truman’s world isn’t a totally paranoid or scary one. And in our world, Social Media does much good – giving voice to the voiceless, and in times of crisis turning us all into citizen journalists.

The Truman Show is an underrated classic and it is a film that really must be seen. I highly, highly, highly recommend this movie.

Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film: UHF

Master and Commander

  • Title: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
  • Director: Peter Weir
  • Date: 2003
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox, Miramax, Universal
  • Genre: Action, Drama, Historical Epic
  • Cast: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd, James D’Arcy
  • Format: Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“Would you call me an aged man of war, Doctor? The Surprise is not old. She has a bluff bow, lovely lines. She’s a fine sea bird, weatherly, stiff and fast. Very fast, if she’s well handled. No, she’s not old. She’s in her prime.”— Captain Jack Aubrey

“This is the second time he’s done this to me. There will not be a third.”— Captain Aubrey

“England is under threat of invasion. And though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is England.”— Captain Aubrey

I loved this movie the first time I saw it, and I really do enjoy it every time I re-watch it. Peter Weir is a very talented director, who manages to balance the large scale, such as full-on battles between tall ships during the Napoleonic Wars, and the more intimate story of the unlikely friendship between the ship’s doctor, a man of science; and the ship’s captain, a life-long Navy man.

Master and Commander is set in 1805, and the HMS Surprise is a man o’war, captained by Jack Aubrey, a hard but fair man, lucky, but also experienced. He’s been in the service his entire life. The ship’s doctor is Stephen Maturin, – a man of science, and a naturalist. He’s close enough friends with Aubrey to be able to challenge him, and speak his mind, especially when talking to Aubrey as his friend, rather than as a member of the crew. The film is based on a series of several novels by Patrick o’Brian, specifically the two that form the film’s compound title (the first introduces the characters, the second is the plot of the film, since Weir wanted to do a plot involving a long sea voyage).

The film contains a lot of beautiful historical details (I love the look of the ship, especially when Aubrey stands alone on the top of a mast). However, the film also doesn’t shy away from the brutal historical facts of the life of sailors, especially naval sailors in the 19th century. The crew of HMS Surprise is shockingly young, and as the British are at war with France, the young die too. We also see Aubrey order the flogging of a disrespectful sailor, not because he is cruel, but to keep discipline. Life in His Majesty’s navy is tough, nasty, and often short — and the film shows you that.

The plot of the film is basically that of a cat and mouse game. A French privateer frigate is harassing British whalers and merchant ships. Aubrey is ordered to find the ship and – “sink, burn, or take her as a prize” as the film’s opening printed narration tells the audience. But the frigate vastly outguns the Surprise — 44 guns to 28, with twice the crew, and the frigate has two decks to the man o’war’s single deck. The frigate also seems to be a cross between a ghost, a Flying Dutchman, and Jack’s opposite number. In two engagements, the Surprise is caught nearly unaware, and the frigate has the “weather gauge” or the advantage in the engagement. In their final battle, Aubrey turns the tables and is able to successfully surprise the frigate, but at a high cost in lost men.

A secondary plot is the ship’s doctor, a naturalist. Because of the damage done to the ship, in both the battles with the frigate and a journey around Cape Horn in a storm, one place Aubrey takes the ship during repairs is the Galapagos — someplace Stephen would dearly like to explore, to collect and document new species of wildlife. But every time it looks like the ship might head there – the frigate shows up, and Aubrey must fight.

There is also a plot about one of the Midshipmen being cursed as a “Jonah”. Basically, he’s scapegoated for the ship’s run of bad luck. He’s the Midshipman whom another sailor disrespects, and gets lashed as a result. The scapegoat plot is one of several examples showing the innate superstition of the sailors. The Midshipman commits suicide, and the ship’s luck begins to turn. Though, Dr. Maturin is accidentally shot after the poor lad’s death. (Maturin is shot by one of the Royal Marines who’s taking pot shots at a following albatross. Obviously, the guy never read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”). Aubrey temporarily gives up his chase of the frigate, so Maturin can be brought ashore to remove the bullet and cloth in his stomach. Stephen does the surgery himself, using a mirror, and Aubrey keeps a hand on Maturin’s belly to steady him. It’s one of the more frightening scenes in the film – not that it’s overly gross, but can you imagine operating on yourself?  Even if it’s the only way to survive? Yikes!

The final battle is total chaos, then silence, then more chaos. Aubrey looks fine, and in his element as he boards the enemy vessel. Billy Boyd is also quite good in the scene! For the most part, he’s seen alot but doesn’t get many lines, but it is nice to see him again. Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany are perfectly cast, and have a great rapport with each other. The rest of the crew of the HMS Surprise slowly move from faces to having personalities.

One thing both Aubrey and Maturin share is a love of music. Aubrey plays violin and Maturin the cello; and their duets in the captain’s cabin are some of the best moments in a film that is full of excellent moments.

Again, Weir’s direction really is excellent — and he’s now one of my favorite directors. There are plenty of gorgeous shots in this film: the ship at full sail, the creatures in the Galapagos Islands, etc. There are also plenty of terrifying shots: the storm around Cape Horn, the battle scenes. But the driving force of the story is the friendship of Aubrey and Maturin; and the comradeship between the sailors on the ship.

I have the two-disc collector’s edition and it really is a beautiful DVD set. The set looks like old parchment, with line drawings of Crowe and the ship. The special features are located on the second disc and there are plenty of  them and they are enjoyable to watch. I also found that I learned from the special features, especially about the different techniques used in the production of the film.

Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars

Dead Poets Society

  • Title:  Dead Poets Society
  • Director:  Peter Weir
  • Date:  1989
  • Studio:  Touchstone Pictures
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Cast:  Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke
  • Format:  Widescreen, Color
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“In my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”  — John Keating

“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice, but the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said ‘most men lead lives of quiet desperation’, don’t be resigned to that.”  — John Keating

Dead Poet’s Society is an extra-ordinary movie about an extra-ordinary teacher.  English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) is the teacher most of us always wanted to have, some of us were lucky enough to have, and if you’ve ever taught or tried to teach — the teacher we strive to be.  Keating doesn’t simply read to his students, or have them read poetry aloud.  Rather, he brings poetry alive by bringing his students outside the classroom – to look at the pictures of past students and remind the current ones how short life can be; or having them read a line of poetry aloud then kick a ball (again outside).  Whether it’s a exercise in what creates conformity, or having students stand on his desk to get a view — Keating not only knows how to reach his students, and turn them into admirers of the great poets, but he touches and changes lives.

However, as one might guess in a movie set at a conservative boys-only prep school in the 1950s, where all the boys have had their entire lives mapped out from day one by their parents, Keating’s unconventional style is noticed and Not Approved by the conservative staff.  It may have gone OK, but for the life of one student, Neil Perry.  Neil is, at heart, an artsy type.  At the opening of the movie, Neil’s father decides he’s taking “too many activities” and forces him to drop the school annual (yearbook).  From the look on Neil’s face, the audience can tell it’s his favorite activity, but Neil caves and does what Daddy tells him to, because he feels he has no choice.  Later it’s Neil who revives Keating’s “Dead Poets Society”, a social club for reading poetry, writing poetry, and Carpe Diem or “Seize the Day”, the un-official anthem of the film.

Neil, later discovers a nearby school is holding open try outs for a play and as he’s always wanted to try acting, Neil goes ahead and tries out, gets the part, and forges the necessary permission slips.  He keeps the entire deal secret from his over-bearing, conservative, egotistical father.  His father does find out, though, and forbids Neil from having anything to do with “that acting nonsense” – he’s to become a doctor.  Neil doesn’t know what to do – so he sees Keating.  Keating tells him he has to talk to his father again, to explain his passion, that he wants to try the stage, just once.  Later, Neil lies about talking to his father and goes to the play.  As Puck in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Neil is a smash success.  But his father sees him on stage, and gets angry.  He takes Neil home and tells him that not only would there be none of this acting business, but he’s pulling him from school and he will be sent to a military academy.  That most certainly sounds like hell to Neil – he kills himself.

After Neil’s death, the school blames everything on Keating, who’s fired.  But the last image of the film, of the Dead Poet’s Society boys, calling Keating “Captain, my Captain”, and standing on their desks in a salute is breath-taking, and will make you cry.

Peter Weir’s direction is stunning in this movie.  From lovely, beautiful, monochromatic shots — such as the boys running off into the blue, misty, night sky and literally disappearing; to the white, snowy scene right after Neil’s death, when his roommate, Todd, throws up and runs off out of grief; there are plenty of gorgeous shots of the beautiful scenery in this movie (in Delaware according to the credits), but Weir also films people with a deft hand.  He uses light and shadow well.  And he brings out emotion, beautifully, in a film with basically all male characters (there’s a few girlfriends here or there, but that’s it).

Dead Poet’s Society is a film that changes whenever you watch it.  Initially, (and yes, I saw the film when it came out in 1989), it seemed like Neil’s father was a complete jerk, and completely to blame for Neil’s death – and the way it was blamed on Mr. Keating.  Last time I watched this film, when I first bought the DVD (another $5.00 special no less!) – I detected a hint of anti-homosexuality, theorizing that Mr. Perry’s hatred of acting and the stage, and anything artsy at all, was actually because actors were thought to be “all gay”, especially in the 1950s.  Thus, his attacks on Neil’s interests in writing and acting.  This time around, I noticed Neil’s complete inability to talk to or challenge his father – though his father certainly didn’t make any sort of conversation possible.  And the treatment of Keating is still really horrible and unfair.  It’s a testament to the director’s skill that he can get so many different reads from a single movie.

And it goes without saying, that Robin Williams is brilliant as the unconventional Mr. Keating.  Robert Sean Leonard is brilliant as the tormented and artistic Neal.  And a very, very, VERY young Ethan Hawke gives a wonderful performance as Neal’s new roommate Todd.  All the performances in the film are stunning, even the characters you dislike such as Neil’s father, and some of the more conventional teachers at the Welton Academy.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 Stars
Next Film:  Die Another Day (James Bond)