*Spoilers Ahead – Don’t Read if you haven’t seen The Truman Show!
Louis Althusser referred to the “Ideological State Apparatus” in 1968, arguing that “Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”. Thirty years later, The Truman Show was released: a film by Peter Weir about Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), a man who, unbeknownst to him, has every moment of his life broadcast on a carefully constructed reality TV show. The film can be interpreted as an allegory for Althusser’s conception of the Ideological State Apparatus. The creator of The Truman Show (the fictional reality show, not the film), Christof (Ed Harris) tells the host of a Truman-themed chat show: “we accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” Truman has never known anything outside of the Island of Seahaven, thus he accepts it as his reality. It can be interpreted as a commentary on many controversial subjects such as religion, reality television, or even social media and the digital age. However, this essay will focus on its commentary on consumer capitalism in Western society.
The first third of the film shows us Truman’s perception of the world. To begin with, he is completely ignorant to the reality of the world around him and accepts it at face value, despite the suspicious events that take place. The film opens with a light falling right in front of Truman from the sky-high celling of an enormous TV studio, which is labelled “SIRIUS (9 CANIS MAJOR)”, referring to the largest star in the sky. As Truman drives to work, it is explained on the radio that an aircraft broke down above Seahaven, shedding some of its parts. This is the first example of the media being used to promote the ideology that prevents Truman from accessing the true conditions of his existence. Despite seeing the world from Truman’s naïve point of view in this section of the film, he is often seen through the lens of a camera. An eye shape often encapsulates shots of Truman, usually through a fisheye lens, constantly reminding us that his reality is being surveyed and broadcast to a global audience and creating an invasive, suffocating atmosphere. We see shots of Truman through the radio in his car, alluding to Cold War paranoia of government surveillance. Or, for a 21st century viewer, it alludes to corporate surveillance; with Google, Facebook, and various other websites selling our data to companies who use it to sell us their goods and services.
In addition to alluding to government and corporate surveillance, the film also reflects the absurd materialism of consumer capitalism, primarily through the relentless product placement, the source of which is often Truman’s wife, Meryl/Hannah (Laura Linney). To begin with, it seems almost natural. Truman responds to her advertisement of a product called ‘Chef’s Pal’ with a genuine “wow, that’s amazing!” However, in the middle third of the film when Truman begins to discover the truth and his perception of the world around him shifts, it becomes more contrived. For example, when Meryl starts talking about hot chocolate during their argument he asks her in frustrated confusion: “What the hell are you talking about? Who are you talking to?” It draws attention to the absurd materialistic ideology of American and Western society.
In the same principle that the best liars always stay close to the truth, the false ideology that Truman is presented with stays close to the reality of the world outside. Althusser argued: “while [ideologies are] admitting that they do not correspond to reality, i.e. that they constitute an illusion, we admit that they do make an allusion to reality, and that they need only to be interpreted to discover the reality of the world behind their imaginary representation of the world.” In the final third of the film, Truman escapes the illusion of his world and discovers the truth beneath it. The film reveals the script being whispered into the characters’ ears; the almost omnipotent creator and his film crew overlooking the show; and the faithful viewers watching Truman’s every move. Somehow, once this is known, the dialogue that was accepted before seems insincere and contrived. Marlon’s (Noah Emmerich) words of friendship suddenly sound meaningless once they are heard being whispered in his ear by the show’s creator before he speaks them. This demonstrates Althusser’s idea that reality need only to be interpreted slightly differently in order to access its truth.
To prevent Truman from accessing the true conditions of his reality, the creators of the show ensure that the ideology in Seahaven is inescapable. It is present in the media, education, on posters all over the island, and through the words of everyone around Truman. Every time Truman comes close to discovering the truth, all of the ideological tools around him function to maintain the illusion of his reality. As a child, he tells his teacher that he wants to be an explorer, to which she responds: “You’re too late! There’s really nothing left to explore.” When Truman attempts to book flights to Fiji, the travel agents is full of fear-mongering posters which further promote this ideology. Again, this feeds into the Marxist allegory of the film. It represents the propaganda used by the Bourgeoisie to maintain the societal hierarchy which benefits them by preventing the working class from accessing the truth. Christof and the creators of the show represent the Bourgeoisie while Truman represents the proletariat: they use ideology to ensure Truman stays convinced by their elaborate façade of reality, thus keeping their multi-million dollar corporation alive. The survival of the show is entirely dependant on Truman, as is the survival of the Bourgeoisie on the working class. They stand to benefit from the ignorance of the proletariat.
Interestingly, the symbols that are typically associated with freedom and liberation represent the opposite in this film. Truman’s false world is characterised by idealist imagery such as blue skies and sunshine. It is an idealised version of the typical middle-class American lifestyle. When he discovers the true conditions of his existence, he continues to be surrounded by sunshine and blue skies. Conversely, the outside world is represented by a narrow black doorway, characterised by darkness and mystery. This suggests a cynical message: that perhaps the reason our true conditions of existence are kept from us and hidden by false ideology is that the false reality is easier to accept than the harshness of the truth. Christof, the creator, says that “Truman prefers his cell.” Perhaps we all do.