Sometimes a movie will ask a question; sometimes it will ask so many follow-up questions that you become lost. You might even start to question the honesty of the question, and wonder if what might have been the mystery of unanswered questions isn’t the mere vacuity of the cynic. Film is well able to ask questions, but there is always the fear that in the asking and answering of the question it will devolve into preaching at the expense of art; this is the so-called ‘wholesome’ movie. The strength of a message will seldom pardon a poor script.
Sometimes, though, a movie will ask questions and seem to be on the cusp of failure, and yet remain a wonderful movie. ‘The Truman Show’ is one of these daring movies. Why does it succeed? It has, in Truman Burbank, a lovable man who endears himself to his audience. This endearment is the secret to his success and also to that of the movie. The questions asked strike us powerfully, but they are yet more powerfully, all-importantly, relevant to our friend Truman. His life depends on the answers. And so we are not presented with a heavy-handed queue of questions, but are instead acquainted with a new friend from idyllic, small Seahaven. And as we see his world start to collapse around him we begin to ask the only question explicitly demanding his attention, buttoned to the blouse of the girl he loves: how’s it going to end?
All other questions are only distractions for Truman, although they shape his every interaction, and they unambiguously threaten to crop up again in his future life. The cynical idea that life is a zero-sum game, that all interaction is only tempered by the leaden rule of doing the least harm to others in the process of self-interest, that love itself is a facade, manifests itself starkly in the townspeople of Seahaven. Every interaction may be pleasant, but some seem aggressively friendly, and one wonders what ulterior motives lie behind them. There is odd product placement, and a strangely consumerist approach to relationships. All of this cannot fail to influence Truman, but he reverses the process in a touching way. Instead of attending to how he presents himself to others, instead of surrounding himself with pictures of how he would like to be seen (notice the photographs in the houses of Seahaven), instead of searching for the one who might satisfy preconceived ideals of the perfect woman, he takes the very vehicle of person-consumerism and uses it to rediscover, albeit in a strangely imperfect way, his lost love.
The way he expresses himself may at first resemble the masquerade of those around him, but as we continue to watch him a deeper truth is revealed in him, a truth by which even those who thought they knew him best are flummoxed. Determination and grace are infrequent companions, yet they seem chummy enough in hapless Truman. In his final scene, which brings to mind C.S. Lewis (and may suggest why this is an appropriate movie to watch this week), he effortlessly and almost comically reverts to his original persona, yet in doing so does not lapse into his former life. Instead he bows out with a poise which could only be supplied by the grace of forgiveness.