I too donated to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser, and it would be unseemly to thank myself, but anyway, this is what I picked.

Like all great satires, the 1998 film The Truman Show has started to look dated and quaint as a direct result of having been proven 100% correct (the only film that I think more precisely predicted the direction American culture was headed, and so was transformed from blowsy farce into strait-laced docudrama was the 1976 media satire Network). To be fair, this story about how reality TV presents a heavily massaged and managed version of real people's lives and packages it to audiences as in some way "truer" than directly scripted fiction, and the unhealthy viewing habits that it engenders as a result, is still firmly wedged in the realm of fantasy. Its plot centers around a gimmicky television show that would, even today, be self-evidently regarded as illegal and immoral. Besides, people are willing to subject themselves to Truman Show-esque deprivations of their privacy and natural identity in the complete, open knowledge that they're on television - no cautious, secretive world-building necessary.

But the film's slightly paranoid, mildly reactionary suspicion that reality TV can lead to a harmful tendency to think of other people's lives as mere entertainment... maybe I'm slightly paranoid and mildly reactionary myself, but it seems to me like that's the world I see every day. And hey, we live in a time when a widely-despised businessman could use his own reality show to patch up his public persona well enough to become the President of the United States on the basis of virtually no other qualifications. An outcome even more cynical than anything The Truman Show could possibly have imagined.

But if The Truman Show was nothing but a nifty media satire, I can hardly suppose I'd be apt to go around calling it one of the greatest American films of the 1990s. Which I think it is. It's also a rather terrific character study with lightly comic overtones, certainly the single film to have put Jim Carrey's antic star persona to the best use during his wildly variable career; and on top of it, it's one of the boldest pieces of mainstream storytelling of its generation. This is, let's never forget, a film that was positioned as a major summer tentpole in 1998, and it has a screenplay (written by Andrew Niccol, apparently to the tune of 16 drafts until director Peter Weir found one he was happy with) that eschews its first act entirely, doesn't give us critical exposition until it's more than halfway over, and leaves the big emotional pay-off to the realm of implication. I will confess that, in my personal development as a cinephile, this was one of the Big Deals, the first time that I came upon a story that was told in such an elliptical, slantwise way, despite being a big-budget Jim Carrey comedy, for God's sake. And along with The Thin Red Line and Moulin Rouge!, it is, I think, one of the key films in helping me to develop a theory of what cinema could and ought to be. If I lack critical distance, so be it: I lack critical distance.

The opening montage, edited to feel like an EPK, tells us some of what we need to know: a man named Christof (Ed Harris) has created a highly immersive television show starring Hannah Gill (Laura Linney) as "Meryl", and Louis Coltrane (Noah Emmerich) as "Marlon", but the real star is Truman Burbank (Carrey), who doesn't realise that his entire life is being broadcast 24 hours a day to adoring audiences around the globe. That's going to have to be enough for us to get through next 55 minutes or so, because just like that, we're plunged into Truman's 10,909th morning in the adorably trim town of Seahaven (played, impeccably, by the planned community of Seaside, Florida), where every face is beaming with a smile, the weather is perfect, the lighting is oddly flat, and studio canister lights with the name of stars fall from the sky. This event, quickly covered in the local news media as the latest accident involving an airplane, those death-traps of the sky, only seems to bother Truman briefly. But he's had other nagging feelings as he closes in on his 30th birthday, chiefly a frustration that he's never left Seahaven in his whole adult life, and that his marriage to Meryl isn't quite satisfying in the face of the Girl Who Got Away, and whose sweater Truman still keeps hidden in the basement. The show is nice enough to insert a flashback to Truman's aborted flirtation with "Lauren" (Natascha McElhone), and it's right about here that we start watching the people watching The Truman Show, in addition to watching Truman ourselves.

And it will be longer still before we revisit Christof and his crew (including a terribly young Paul Giamatti, from when he still had hair), in their control booth hiding in the moon over Seahaven, and the film finally gives us some of the details about how The Truman Show - Christof's version, not Weir and Niccol's - actually works. It's maybe the single most important decision made in the shooting script to delay this revelation for so long. It gives us nearly a full hour to get to know Truman better, and to invest ourselves in his story - which is, I think, achieved very handily given that we know just enough more than he does for the bright, smiley fakeness of his world to register for us in a way it doesn't for him. I, at least, find it hard not to be slightly protective towards the character, outraged on his behalf at the many people who are lying to him, and all with him an unaware babe in the woods, not realising that this brittle world is so artificial because he has been managed from birth not to.

In the same regard, I find that the movie works entirely thanks to Carrey's presence. It's not exactly that it's his greatest performance (he's obviously better in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and I think arguments could be made for Man on the Moon and even The Cable Guy), but I don't think any film ever used his star persona to more pointed effect, which is close enough to having the effect of a great performance. There's just enough leftover of the rubber-faced goon, even despite Weir's firm hand keeping the actor pressed down, for Truman to feel like a wild spirit horribly penned-in by the smallness of his life, without even necessarily understanding that about himself. The few moments where '90s-era maniac Carrey bleeds through into the film have an almost desperate feeling, as a result, giving the sense of an energetic force that has been building until the point that it's about to explode. And that explosion is, of course, what we're about to watch.

It's a perfect balancing act: the somewhat trite story of a man who just know that there's gotta be more, man, made rather less trite because we know damn good and well that he's right; the feeling of suburbia as a forced, fake shell that adopts almost the feeling of a dystopian sci-fi thriller since we're aware that Seahaven is a shell, and that Meryl's shrill cheeriness literally is a false front from a not very great actress (Hannah Gill, that is, not Laura Linney, who is superb), and all that. So The Truman Show works first and foremost as a character study, even before it's a media satire. And by the time the show finally starts to explain how Christof's Truman Show functions, we've bought into the movie. Which is necessary, because Christof's Truman Show is obviously a fabulistic construct, one that couldn't possibly exist in the real world (I've sometimes regretted that the film doesn't spend any time exploring what Hannah Gill and Louis Coltrane think about all this - the latter even appears in deleted footage - but in honesty, I don't see how the film's reality could survive giving those characters interior lives). And yet I've never once felt like that interview between a cameoing Harry Shearer and Christof rings false at all. The magic of movies.

That being said, the revelations that come at the 55-minute mark deepen The Truman Show considerably, giving it additional layers of meaning. It very unexpectedly, but effectively, transforms into an allegory about man and God, with Christof standing in as the all-controlling creator who claims to know what's best for his creation, but self-evidently doesn't really care. A potentially one-note parody of the chilly intellectual artist (he wears a beret!), Christof also benefits from a note-perfect performance, with Harris supplying the aura of an unloving father figure rather than simply a mad director, which means that by the time the script gets around to making those connections explicit, the foundation has been laid for those moments to feel authentic and not like a desperate storytelling gambit.

And what of the actual austere God-like figure behind The Truman Show? It's not Weir's best film - that will always be Picnic at Hanging Rock - but I'm not sure if it isn't his most fully-conceived. There are two projects here: Weir and Niccol's story of Truman escaping his prison and pursuing his own dreams rather than the one designed for him; and Weir's interpretation of how a man like Christof would handle this material. Most of what we see and hear in the film is the same as what the television show's audience sees and hear, meaning that all of the cinematography and editing choices aren't just coming from D.P. Peter Biziou and editors William Anderson and Lee Smith (the latter going to become Christopher Nolan's preferred cutter), but from there attempt to get inside the process of crafting a live improvised television show. This means, in practice, that the film is full of shots that have the warped distortion and limited iris of wide-angle shots from buttonhole cameras, which Weir and Biziou accommodated for by framing the film in 1.66:1 to give it a boxier look, though I have to think that open-matte 4:3 would be best of all (the theatrical release was in 1.85:1 and the Blu-ray is 1.78:1, both of which looking fucking terrible; at least the first two DVD releases maintain the 1.66:1 ratio, and it's the only way to see the film, to my mind).

It also means that the film's soundtrack is dominated by well-chosen stock music from the career of Philip Glass (who has a cameo), Weir's reasoning being that it was the kind of music a man like Christof would be apt to have ready at a moment's notice (Burkhard von Dallwitz's original cues have a decidedly Glassy tone, as well). It works, extremely well: outside of the first time we see dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and John Williams is there to make sure we get how very goddamn amazing that is, there's no musical moment in any 1990s American film that gets to me more than the appearance of Glass's "Anthem - Part 2" from the Powaqqatsi soundtrack, repetitive enough to feel like it's building tension, but so unusually upbeat that it's more curiousity than fear that comes across. And it's the perfect match for the moment it accompanies, the scene when Truman begins to truly understand how artificial his world is, how everything around him seems to be choreographed by some greater mind.

So anyway, I love the thing very much. It has issues, some tiny (naming the protagonist of an allegory about free will "True Man" is some high school English shit), some larger (even in this fantasy world, thinking that a childhood fear of water was enough to keep Truman pinned to a small island town for 30 straight years is hard to swallow), but all in all, it tells its story with great conviction and flair, and I have to tip my hat to a movie that can present a story of free will in the face of a cruel god and a story about how audiences are relying on media to provide fake emotional experiences, and have both of them feel like the most important, serious part of the film. I suppose I rate it beyond its objective qualities, but I'd like to think that we all get to overrate a few films here and there, and The Truman Show matters to me too much to hold back anything.