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© Birgit Wolz
Occidental, CA, USA



Therapeutic Movie Review Column

By Birgit Wolz, Ph.D., MFT


The Truman Show

Director: Peter Weir
Producers: Edward S. Feldman, Andrew Niccol, Scott Rudin, Adam Schroeder
Screenwriter: Andrew Niccol
Cast: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Ed Harris
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1998


Truman Burbank lives in Seahaven. He works as a sales executive at an insurance company, seems happily married to Meryl, and does not find it suspicious that she describes household products in the language of TV commercials. He lives an ideal life in an ideal, if limited, world. Truman accepts his reality, shrugging off the occasional odd moment that just does not seem to fit the picture. He is happy, more or less. And yet a subtle uneasiness seems to pervade his inner world.

We gradually learn that Truman's outer world is an elaborate hoax perpetrated on him by television producer and director Christof. Truman was adopted at birth by Christof's television company, and his life has been televised every second of every day from that moment on. For thirty years, he has been the unwitting star of the longest running, popular documentary-soap opera in history. Seahaven ("sea heaven") is actually a gigantic soundstage. Truman Burbank (Warner, Disney, NBC etc. are located in Burbank) lives under the gaze of 5,000 hidden TV cameras. Everyone around him is an actor: his mother, father, best friend, wife, coworkers, shopkeepers, street-sweepers, etc. And all the actors overact: the mother is too motherly, the best friend is awfully true blue, and the wife is ever so wifely.

This whole monstrous fabrication is paid for by corporate advertising. From his control room high in an artificial "sky," the god-like Christof and his minions work 24/7 to maintain Truman's complex illusion of reality and to prevent him from discovering the truth.

In a flashback, we learn that Truman had survived a boating accident as a boy in which his "father" drowned. Christof had staged a violent "storm" that swept Truman's dad off to sea. This traumatic experience prevented Truman from setting his foot into a boat ever again. Because Seahaven is surrounded by the ocean, his water phobia kept him from discovering the boundaries of this illusionary human-made paradise.

Truman secretly still loves his former college sweetheart, Lauren. Another flashback shows that they met in a library (symbol of the knowledge of good and evil). The actress, Sylvia, who played Lauren developed real feelings for Truman. She believed that he should know the truth about his existence and took him to the beach, where they could not be heard. They kissed with the pounding surf in the background (to scare Truman away). Before she was able to reveal anything, she was quickly rushed away and eventually banished from the show. When Truman heard that Lauren had moved to Fiji with her family, he agreed to marry Meryl, who now serves the show as a more reliable pro.

Several unexplainable events start to make Truman suspicious. A strange man leaps out of a Christmas present shouting incongruous protests and then is quickly wrestled out of the living room. Truman's dead father appears and is taken away too. When a studio light falls from the "sky", Truman suspects that he is somehow being watched. He feels that something is missing and thinks that he might find it in Fiji, with Lauren. But everybody, especially Meryl, tries very hard to prevent him from leaving. His attempts to cross a bridge are prevented by some cleverly staged events by Christof.

Truman's desire to find the truth as well as Lauren is a compelling force that ultimately drives him to face and conquer his great fear of the ocean. He charters a boat, enters the water that kept him contained, and is soon exposed to the anti-Christ, "Christ-off's", worst tempest. For Christof, the demands of the show take precedence over any other values. Into the manufactured deadly storm, he broadcasts his threatening voice down to Truman, "I AM the Creator...", while Lauren whispers a simple prayer as she is watching The Truman Show on TV. Soon Truman is knocked out by the storm and lies with his arms outstretched on the boat as though he died. Ropes form the sign of the cross on his chest, emphasizing his crucified-like body posture.

Suddenly the sea is calms down and the sun starts shining. Truman awakens and continues to sail fearlessly until he unexpectedly crashes into the "end of the world", the back wall of the gigantic sound studio in which he lives. He leaves the boat and walks on the ledge, as if walking on water, to a set of stairs leading up to a door. Christof warns him about the challenges that he will have to face if he enters real life through this door. But Truman becomes a true man as he steps through the door and escapes the cameras as well as the confines of his limited world and worldview.

The filmmakers devised a carefully crafted object lesson, full of metaphors and symbols, on the need to question our perceived reality, on self-determination, on truth seeking, and on overcoming fear.

Theoretical Contemplation

What we take to be real is, in fact, often a highly edited, thoroughly filtered version of reality. In perceiving the world, it is as if our eyes and ears were a camera and microphone. Instead of actually witnessing reality directly, we frequently watch what can be called an inner movie , on a screen inside our heads. And this screen is often unreliable. Our inner movie plays the story that we tell ourselves about the world around us and about who we are. Most of these stories and beliefs about reality are formed in childhood, as an adaptive response to our reality at that time. Later in life, these beliefs are not accurate reflections of the current reality any more.

Introducing the metaphor of the inner movie to clients in conjunction with recommending movies that play with our perception of reality, such as The Truman Show, helps them question distorted beliefs as well as projections. Other movie examples are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004 ), Stay (2005), The Matrix (1999 ), Pleasantville (1998 ), Solaris (1972 and 2002 ), Thirteenth Floor (1999 ), Total Recall (1990) , and Vanilla Sky (2001).

Cinema Alchemy

Betsy came to see me because she wanted to work on herself to save her relationship with her boyfriend, Larry. He had told her that he loved Betsy very much, but her jealousy drove him crazy. Other relationships before him had ended for the same reason. Betsy's jealous thoughts seemed especially obsessive when Larry sporadically works as a disk jockey, because he meets young women during this work. He has become increasingly frustrated with my client, because she keeps interrogating him about his encounters with women.

Betsy felt helpless and out of control with this behavior. She is also embarrassed about the fact that she frequently secretly checks his computer for evidence of infidelity. When she feels upset, my client escapes these emotions by engaging in what she calls "retail therapy". She overspends on cloths, and her increasing credit card debt worries her.

After several sessions, she revealed to me that her dad had had several affairs when she grew up. Her mom knew about this and frequently complained to Betsy about his behavior and "men in general". But she didn't have the courage and resources to leave her marriage.

At one point Betsy said, "when I am with Larry, I know deep inside that he is not cheating on me. But when I don't see him, my doubts become really strong." As soon as she seemed ready to question her jealous beliefs, I told how the plot of an inner movie tells a story about ourselves and other people, which is based on early life experiences. Betsy loved films. She was very open to movie metaphors and excited about my suggestion to view Truman Show .

In our subsequent exploration she not only questioned more strongly what she had perceived as the "reality" of Larry's cheating. She also saw how her "escape" into overspending helped her feel better, but created a "false reality". I asked my client whether she can see herself - as Truman did - facing the challenge of leaving this false world behind. This way of thinking allowed her to break through her denial, attend Debtors Anonymous meetings, stop her spending habit, and face the more "real world" of some difficult emotions when they arose. During our sessions, she started working with these emotions and developed tools to process them successfully.

Guidelines for Work with Clients Who Understand Metaphors

Before the movie:

Watch how Truman goes through a transformation from an oblivious and fearful person into a man who courageously seeks authenticity and truth although this means to face the challenges of the real life.

After the movie:

•  Does a (mature or wise) part of you sometimes wonder whether certain beliefs that you hold about yourself and/or others are distorted or not "real"?

•  What would it take to question these beliefs and eventually, like Truman, "step through the door" toward authenticity and truth?

•  In case of an addiction: What would it take to let go of your denial and to bring up the courage to face the more "real world" of sometimes difficult emotions.

•  Would you be interested in learning tools to process such emotions successfully?


Birgit Wolz wrote the following continuing education online courses:

Cinema Therapy - Using the Power of Movies In the Therapeutic Process, which guides the reader through the basic principles of Cinema Therapy.

Cinema Therapy with Children and Adolescents - This course teaches Cinema Therapy with young clients. It includes numerous movie suggestions, which are categorized according to age and issues. It serves therapists, teachers, and parents.

Positive Psychology and the Movies: Transformational Effects of Movies through Positive Cinema Therapy - This course teaches how to develop clinical interventions by using films effectively in combination with positive psychotherapy. It serves for mental health practitioners and anybody who is interested in personal growth and emotional healing.

Therapeutic Ethics in the Movies - What Films Can Teach Psychotherapists About Ethics and Boundaries in Therapy, which covers: confidentiality, self-disclosure, touch, dual relationships and out-of-office experiences (i.e., home visits, in-vivo exposures, attending a wedding, incidental encounters, etc.)

Boundaries and the Movies - Learning about Therapeutic Boundaries through the Movies, which covers informed consent, gifts, home office, clothing, language, humor and silence, proximity and distance between therapist and client, and, finally, sexual relations between therapist and client.

DSM: Diagnoses Seen in Movies - Using Movies to Understand Common DSM Diagnoses.

Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual (PDM) - A New Approach to Diagnosis in Psychotherapy