Just over twenty years ago, a classic movie from Australian director, Peter Weir, debuted in theaters. Written by New Zealand born writer and director, Andew Niccol, The Truman Show needs little introduction. The timeless film continues to reach new generations year after year. I remember viewing the film at the local theater in the small Wyoming town in which I was raised. A small town that was and still is predominantly Mormon. I found it an enjoyable movie with great acting though, at 18 years old, I’m certain I didn’t appreciate the depth and metaphor. And I saw the movie through the lens of a fully believing, indoctrinated Mormon teenager just six short months from wearing the black name tag of a Mormon missionary.
So, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, read no further. My observations are a poor replacement for viewing the incredible film with your own eyes. Though I’ve seen the film multiple times, I just rewatched it myself for the first time in several years. With my post-cult mindset, I found myself weeping at several moments. So traumatic can be the journey from cult living and thinking, I even exclaimed at one point, “You bastards!” to the television.
So, just to be clear, SPOILERS AHEAD. You have been warned and, might I say, admonished to view the film before reading further. I realize my writing, wit, and charm are compelling enough that, in your subtly hypnotic state, you’d like nothing more than to read on. Let my captivating style compel you to carefully bookmark this blog page that you may read it after enjoying the actual film.
Regarding fundamentalist religions, what interests me most at this point in my life, are the experiences people have in the process of leaving them. The Sophie’s Choice each individual must face between Pascal’s Wager and intellectual integrity is only a small part of it. The bigger challenge they must face is the excruciatingly painful choice to estrange themselves from their closest friends, their families, employment, and the entire culture and paradigm under which they may have lived quite happily for decades of their lives. Like a spouse finding their loving and attentive companion has been cheating on them for years, upon discovering the facts spoils the truth of their relationship in an instant. All the good feelings, reassurances during difficult times, and companionship they once felt feels all-for-none.
For Truman, some eye-opening events unfold that reveal the true nature of those he thought were his strongest advocates. Jim Carrey pulls off the shock, despair, and resolve that apostates–once the most ardent supporters of a faith–experience when the curtain is pulled back and the wizard is revealed to be little more than a lecherous, cringing troglodyte. A weak man of weaker ideas that clings to his power through parlor tricks and casuistry.
Probably the moment that struck me the most was when Truman, after his wife left him, sits on an unfinished bridge, speaking to his best friend, Marlon. You get the feeling that Marlon, though a hired actor, really does care for Truman. They’ve been best friends for a long time, practically their whole lives. Truman expresses his doubts to Marlon, and the feeling that everybody must be in on it. Marlon seems emotionally shaken through the conversation, but his JOB is to keep Truman in the dark. Keep him loyal to the show which must go on.
After a few lines of dialogue, the camera begins to go back and forth between the show’s producer–the metaphorical ‘God’ of this fantasy world–and the two on the bridge. That’s when you realize, that everything Marlon is saying, is being put in his ear by the producer–Christof. We are left to think that little of what Marlon says came from his own mind and heart. He was simply a channel for the voice of ‘God’ to speak to Truman.
I paused the show at this moment. For so many years I tried to be such a person. To say what a deity would have me say that would be best to help a struggling friend. Though I realize now that any words I said were my own, the idea of God giving me the words to speak perverted them. It undermined the relationship I had with everyone since my highest responsibility in life was to promote the show of which I was a part. Bring in new converts and retain long-time members. Every friendship was tainted by some ethereal expectation to build a fantasy world on Earth.
Sitting on a broken bridge, we viewers are reminded of the manipulation done to keep Truman in the dark. The bridge goes nowhere. His whole life he’s been made to be afraid of the water. Living on an island, the only way off is by boat or across a bridge. He is forced to see his father drown out on the ocean to create such a fear of the water, that he can never leave. Go to a
Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ‘fast and testimony meeting’ or listen to their General Conference. Members and leaders extol the virtues of emotional and physical trauma that serves to keep a person’s faith in the organization firm. The untimely death of a child that serves to bring a wayward parent back into the fold of God is a good thing. Of course, they get this from their Abrahamic foundations in which they celebrate the willingness of a father to gut his own child to show his love of God.
So here, Truman is held captive by a mind forg’d manacle. Even when he shares his dream of traveling to Fiji with his friends and family, they mock him for wanting to go somewhere else. His school teachers impugn his desire to be an explorer like Magellan by telling him there’s simply nothing left to explore. When his wife finally agrees to go to Fiji, it isn’t because she loves him. She’s mocking him. When they reach a bridge to leave town, she reminds him of his fear of the water and that he can’t cross the bridge. Her greatest commitment is to the show, not to Truman.
Here we understand that the greatest virtue of the show/cult, is to protect the fabricated reality. ‘Lying for the Lord’ is the modus operandi. Relationships, facts, and compassion are all subservient to the kingdom created.
All of Truman’s relationships are engineered by the guy at the top. Parents are placed there and are caretakers. Their devotion is to the god and corporation that own them, not to Truman. They may love Truman in a real and genuine way, but they will sacrifice that to relationship to protect the show. They say what they are told. They die before your eyes if it serves the good of the god. His own wife marries him because she is told to by god, her fingers crossed the whole time. The reality of the relationship only holds up as a part of the fantasy. When he confronts his wife, Meryl, one evening, she doesn’t know what to say or how to act. Since their relationship always had ‘god’ in the way, she resorts to spouting trite advertising slogans to try to distract or appease him.
In a cult, slogans and mottos and catch-phrases begin to dominate real conversation. Repeated, faith-promoting, organization-affirming drivel go from subtle ‘garment checks’ among the faithful to insipid parlance in all conversation.
Since Truman cannot leave with his wife–he tried and faux firefighters in radiation suits tackled him and video-taped every heart-rending second to slake the fans of the show–he must craft his own way out. When Christof realizes his favored sheep is now the lost lamb, every person in the show is brought out to search for him. His recently rediscovered father, who seemingly broke into the show to be with a son we thought he had loved enough to see again, joins the throngs of the show. I was left to wonder if the father loved Truman or the show more? Or did he long to have his son such that he would play pretend again just to be with him. That answer is up to each viewer I suppose.
At one point during this phase, the typically reclusive Christof consents to an interview the whole world can watch. Something the real ‘god’ has yet to do though, when he does according to most monotheistic religions, it will be preceded by his judgments of death and hell-fire to the world. The interviewer asks Christof why Truman hasn’t reached this point of asking questions up to now. Christof responds, “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.” Especially when we are born into a delusion and carefully raised so as never to question it. Questions are dangerous.
When we finally see Truman again, he is facing his fear. Alone, adrift on an ocean in a small boat, he smiles and calmly stares up at the bright, engineered Sun and sky. We see a man at peace with himself and his world. A man that feels a sense of self-determination he’s never known before. But most of all, we see an apostate leaving a cult. And, like so many, he must leave alone.
But even the god, Christof, tries to make this about the show. Finding the perfect camera angle, Christof holds out his hands and exclaims that this is their “hero shot!” Having power over the weather, Christof then creates a storm with the intent of bringing Truman’s fear to the surface and making him turn back. When some rough waves and wind don’t do the trick, cries out, “Is that the best you can do? You’re gonna have to kill me!”
Of course, just as the god of perfect love we know from the Bible, Christof orders more wind, more waves, more terror. He has to bring his sheep back to the fold, even if it kills him.
How many have been told, either before or after leaving a cult, that it would have been better for them to die than to leave? In my opinion, one is a great deal too many.
After Truman is nearly killed and the producers of the show demand that god–Christof–not kill someone on live television (a courtesy not extended to unworthy humans in real life) the storm is stilled and Truman is able to continue sailing away from his fantasy world.
Then he runs into the edge of the world. A wall/barrier with a door nearby. This is the moment Christof chooses to speak directly to Truman, rather than through the earpiece and mouth of an actor in the world. The dialogue ought to make any apostate shiver and I’ll leave it to you to watch. Suffice it to say, we hear the same drivel religion has peddled for millennia.
- It’s all created with you in mind
- I know you better than you know yourself
- “You can’t leave, you belong here with me.” This said by Christof as an amplified voice from the sky with a feigned or genuine adoration of Truman. A man he was ready to kill just moments earlier as punishment for his hubris in challenging him.
Truman’s choice is his. And we catch a glimpse in his response that, despite the fetters of his fantasy world, he had always been authentically himself. This may be one of two subtle differences between apostates and Truman. Many who leave a cult only then begin to discover themselves. That’s not their fault though it is a painful and difficult journey.
The biggest difference in real life, is that the gods and producers and practitioners of religion are not “in on it.” The majority, in my opinion, have bought into the fantasy as much as their adherents.
This alone allows for two differences in leaving for us versus for Truman. When he left, he was alone because everyone was in on it. Many of us will endure the same. But, often, we can and do get to take the journey with friends and family. We can reach out to support groups in a way Truman never could. But the friends and family that, in love, try to keep us in the fold, aren’t knowingly deceiving us. They aren’t actors, they are acolytes.
We should know what that is like, we were once the same.