Throughout the twentieth and twenty first century, media has shaped the way we view the world. We now spend more time than ever engaging with some form of media. Now it’s much easier to become known and become a celebrity. This can lead to more opportunities for everybody. It can also lead to multiple invasions of privacy.
This article will examine four films that examine what it means to live on a type of media for a long time. In each of these stories, an average person gives their lives over to a media platform for a long time. When this happens, questions of privacy and security come into play.
In the late 1990s, two films with the same premise came out: Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998) and Ron Howard’s EDtv (1999). The Truman Show became a critical and financial success. It focused on a man being confined to a TV show without his knowledge. Both focused on a man becoming the subject of a 24-hour TV show. The less financially and critically successful of these movies, EDtv focused on a man who actually agrees to be on the show. EDtv is also more transparently about media than The Truman Show. In his review of EDtv, Roger Ebert referred to it as an “Ambitious Sitcom,” while referring to The Truman Show as a parable.
The Truman Show
Unfulfilled Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) does not realize that he lives in a TV show until his world literally starts falling apart.
The World of the Film
The Truman Show resembles a silent comedy set in a nightmarish sitcom. The comedy often consists of physical humor more than verbal jokes and improvisation. Entertainment Weekly described it as if Rod Serling created The Real World. It began as a much darker script set in New York City written by Andrew Niccol. Feeling that nobody would tune in to such a dark show, director Peter Weir decided to lighten it up and set it in a resort-like town.
Truman’s world always feels unfinished. Truman and his best friend Marlon (Noah Schnepp) play golf off of an unfinished high way. In the making of documentary, Peter Weir explained that he and the cast and crew created a backstory for characters and the show. He describes how he believed show creator Christof (Ed Harris) began by creating just a nursery, then slowly created the whole town around Truman. The show is also planning the first on-screen conception between Truman and another woman. In a deleted scene, Christof describes how the show will switch over to a two-channel format when this happens.
The film begins around the time Truman’s world literally starts falling apart. A stage light falls out of the sky. Over a short period of time, various little cracks start to form in reality. His father reappears. He hears a radio comes on. He finds an elevator that is an unfinished part of the set.
In this world, everybody operates as both a television character and spokesperson. Truman begins to notice that people do the same things over and over again. Clients push Truman up against billboards. Marlon and Truman’s wife Meryl (Laura Linney) both sell products onscreen. Marlon always comes over with a set of beers, while Meryl tries to sell Truman on some products. According to the making of documentary, Meryl’s in-world actress Hannah Gill gets a raise for selling products and sleeping with Truman.
Truman began life as an unwanted child. The first child adopted by a corporation, Truman unknowingly became the star of a show watched by millions. According to the making of documentary, Peter Weir saw Christof creating a nursery first and hiring a mother, then hiring a father, then slowly creating a whole show.
At the beginning of the film, Truman Burbank leads an unfulfilling life. He wants to leave the town, but is scared of the water due to the death of his father. Similarly, he pines after Sylvia (Natascha McElhone), the woman he met in high school, but cannot find after the show took her away. He makes a collage that he thinks represents her face.
The Consequences of the story primarily focus around Truman. Truman is the subject of this deeply artificial show. His life is a creation. There is a lot of a merchandise and even a Truman-themed bar. At the beginning of the film, he feels unfulfilled with his life and begins acting out when his world starts falling apart.
Over the course of the story, Truman feels like he is going mad as certain details start to not add up. He begins to act out like a rebellious teenager. After a scary drive with his wife Meryl, actress Hannah Gill decides to leave the show.
At the end of the film, Truman runs away by sneaking out of his basement. Without anybody noticing, he steals a boat and sails out to “sea.” Christof tries to kill him with a storm, but Truman survives. When Truman hits the wall of the studio, and finds the door leading out, Christof begs him to stay. Truman gives his signature phrase: “in case I don’t see you, Good afternoon, Good evening, and good night.” Truman leaves. The films ends on two security guards changing the channel.
Good natured rube Ed Pekurny (Matthew McConaughey) agrees to become a twenty-four-hour reality TV star for the network TrueTV. Although it opens new doors for him, Ed soon finds his personal life stifled by being on television.
The World of the Film
EDtv is a movie firmly set in 1999. It takes place right around the time of the reality television boom of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. The main character works as a video store clerk. TruTV follows him around at all times with big bulky cameras. Unlike The Truman Show, product placement is presented here without commentary. In fact, Howard said that he thought the movie would make a bundle off product placement, but its cynical tone and style prevented it.
The film cost $80 Million and only recouped only $35 million. In the DVD commentary, when the logo for Imagine comes up, screenwriter Lowell Ganz says, “imagine if this had been a hit.” Although it did not perform as well critically or commercially, the film did screen at the Cannes and has received some new praise over time.
Part of the cost probably has to do with creating a television show within a film and the way the film was shot. Many scenes were shot live and had multiple cameras running at once. For the two Camera Men following in the film worked as real camera men.
Originally a three-hour movie, EDtv has a large scope. Instead of focusing on one man, EDtv focuses on a man, his family, and his romantic and sexual conquests. It explores many areas of life not covered in The Truman Show. Much of what was cut out were scenes that either did not relate to the main plot line or felt extraneous. These included multiple dramatic encounters with Ed and his closest friends and family and a whole subplot where Ed pisses off the Polish defamation league and has to apologize.
When Ron Howard decided to make EDtv, he had worked on a lot of serious films and decided that he wanted to make a comedy again. The difficulty involved finding the right subject matter. He finally decided to remake the Quebecois film Louis 19, le roi des ondes (1994) (Louis 19, King of the Airwaves). When Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer showed screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel the French-Canadian movie, they felt underwhelmed. In the original film, the lead character is a meek mild mannered man who becomes angry at the end. Feeling this was unoriginal, Ganz and Mandel decided to make the lead a guy who has not quite grown out of his Teenage years. When reworking the character for himself with Ganz and Mandel, McConaughey pitched him as a sort of practical character.
As a character, Ed begins the film as a video store clerk, a job that mostly high school kids work. Over the course of the film, Howard, Ganz, and Mandel see Ed as a lovable simpleton, but also did want to push the audience’s opinion of him in one way or another. Oftentimes, Howard would cut down any scenes that made the character seem too harsh or too silly. The film comes to a sort of compromise about how to portray the character. Ganz and Mandel said that they did not want him to “be like Gomer,” referring to naïve Southern Gomer Pyle character from The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1964) and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1964-1969).
Throughout the film, a big question is how much of Ed’s problems are his fault and how much relate to him being on television. Ed has many problems, but most of them relate less to his status as a TV star and more to both his and other people’s poor choices. Reality TV only exacerbates the problem. This especially holds true relating to the private matters of his sex life and family.
In the film, Ed and his brother Ray’s girlfriend Shari have a mutual attraction. After Ray cheats on her and it’s revealed on live television, Ed goes to Shari’s place and they end up announcing their love for each other, not realizing they are on life TV.
Long before the beginning of the film, Ed’s mother Cynthia (Sally Kirkland) left his father Hank (Dennis Hopper) for his stepfather Al (Martin Landau). When Hank turns up again, the situation turns out to be more complicated and difficult with multiple infidelities. All of this plays out on camera, causing Ed to become alienated from his family.
In his DVD commentary, Howard discusses the themes of the story. One theme mentioned by Howard in the DVD is the idea that nobody’s family would hold up to scrutiny when judged by a mass audience. Another theme is how audiences turn everything into a story, whether it actually is or not. Throughout the film, there are multiple conflicts that fall into these gray areas. Reality television is not completely at fault, but the broadcast of these problems makes them much worse.
Things come to a head when Ed discovers that the network has decided to follow his family around as well as him. With this revelation, Ed decides to reveal the intimate details of the lives of TrueTV’s executives. When he gets a juicy detail about one of the executives having a penile implant, the network cuts him off the air. All the TV cameras move out, leaving Ed and Shari alone. As they make love for the first time, a panel show discusses how little of an impact Ed will ultimately have on popular culture.
17 years later, two new films came out: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Nerve (2016) and James Ponsoldt’s The Circle (2017). Like The Truman Show, Nerve focuses on an individual getting inadvertently caught up in an audience based game. Like EDtv, The Circle focused on somebody knowingly agreeing to become known on media for twenty-four hours. However, this time, the films focused on how social media affected the lives of young women.
A Change in Time Period
Between 1999 and 2016, the world had big technological advancements in the internet and Social Media. While social media was present in 1999 (Six Degrees had come out in 1997), it did not become a facet of day to day life until much later. It was not until four years later that both Facebook and Myspace first appear on the internet. With the creation of such sites, now everybody can be an entertainer for 24 hours a day.
When The Truman Show turned 20 in 2018, the filmmakers involved in the film said that they could not have predicted what would happen. When the film was written, there was not a lot of prescient for Reality TV. Screenwriter Andrew Niccol first wrote the script in 1991, there were very few reality show (The Real World would come out the next year). Niccol said that he found it ironic that there was no need for The Truman Show to exist in the modern world because everybody already broadcasts themselves now. Director Peter Weir felt disturbed by how advertising would follow him around the internet and covered the webcam on his laptop with a piece of tape.
Similarly, when The Truman Show and EDtv premiered, neither predicted that a reality TV star would become President through the help of social media. While there is a presidential joke in EDtv, it plays more into the idea that even the president is entertained by the show.
The New Films
Both The Truman Show and EDtv focused on men pushing thirty. They have made decisions about how to live their lives. Truman decided to take a menial job he hated, while Ed made the decision to stay in a job that mostly teenagers do. Many of the new movies about social media would choose to focus on women just starting out in life. Both the protagonists in Nerve and The Circle are both trying to figure out what they want to do.
While the 1990’s movies involved a Network creating a show around one person, the 2010’s movies involved a more complex situation where one cannot simply escape social media. Truman Show and EDtv end with the hero regaining their privacy and anonymity after the end of show. In the end of the newer movies, the protagonist defeats the institution that has hurt them, but they still exist as a presence online.
The tone also changes significantly. While Truman Show and EDtv act as comedies, Nerve and The Circle are more serious and involve much darker consequences (characters actually die in these movies). Part of this comes from the fact that most of what seemed absurd in both 90’s movies has now happened and much of it is now mundane.
High school student Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) decides to become a “Player” in the mysterious online game of Nerve, which dares its players to engage in dangerous and insane stunts.
The World of the Film
Nerve is a film made by people familiar with the internet and internet culture. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman got their start with the documentary Catfish (2010), which focused on Schulman’s brother Nev meeting a woman online.
Among other choices, the directors decided to make the film both a celebration and exploration of internet culture. The first image of the film has Vee logging onto her computer. They designed many of the film’s action sequences to be similar to Youtube videos. They also brought in people connected to the internet including Youtubers Casey Neistat and Josh Ostrovsky (known professionally as The Fat Jew).
Schulman and Joost also present two different worlds: Vee’s normal world of Staten island and the world of Nerve. Vee’s normal world has a very naturalistic feel to it. Many scenes are shot with handheld camera. The locations have a sort of washed out quality to it. The World of Nerve takes place at night and is drenched in neon. Blue, yellow, and orange lights permeate the scenes.
Nerve is one of many movies in the 2010’s that involves a female protagonist playing a dangerous game. Other examples include Truth and Dare (2017) and Escape Room (2019). Like many protagonists in these types of movies, Vee begins a wall flower who has just lost a family member. In this case, it is her brother. A Staten Island resident, Vee wants to attend CalArts, but feels that it would disappoint her mother (Juliette Lewis), who wants her to stay there.
Unsure of what to do, Vee hangs out with her two best friends, Sydney (Emily Meade) and Tommy (Miles Heizer). One provides comedy relief and emotional growth, while the other acts as a fail and explains the rules of Nerve. Sydney is a popular cheerleader obsessed with fame. She wants Vee to break out of her shell and try new things. Vee likes a football player who does not even know she exists. Sydney tell him that Vee is interested in him, but he says Vee is “not his type.” Tommy is technically inclined and spends a lot of time on the dark web. He does not trust Nerve and the way it operates. It turns out that he is right to be concerned.
As part of her first dare, Vee must kiss a random stranger. She picks Ian (Dave Franco), who is sitting in a booth reading her favorite book. What she does not realize is that Ian has a dark past related to the game and the death of another player in Seattle.
The Watchers decide that Vee and Ian work great together and give Vee and Ian challenges for them to win money. This leads to Vee and Ian that begin as uncomfortable (leaving a store after having your clothes stolen, getting a tattoo), but lead to more and more dangerous stunts (driving blindfolded, hanging off a crane).
Nerve is a game that is impossible to shut down due to the fact that it is not connected to one server. The game relates to the fact that it has spectators.
When Vee reports the game, she becomes its prisoner. The game takes all her money out of her bank account and she must play until she wins. She quickly learns that this is the same fate of both Ian and another player, Ty (Colson Baker AKA Machine Gun Kelly).
In order to stop Nerve, Vee and her friends find that they have to make the complacent “watchers” culpable. This means revealing their real identities and making them witness the crime of Vee’s staged murder by Ty. When all the viewers are forced to be responsible, they log off, effectively ending the game.
Vee ends up getting her dream, as we see through a whole bunch of social media. The credits play as internet graphics and apps.
When Mae Holland (Emma Watson) gets hired by Google-like company The Circle, she quickly learns all of the benefits of working for the company. Things start to spiral out of control when she becomes completely invested in The Circle’s culture.
The World of the Film
The Circle is based on the book of the same name by Dave Eggers. Director James Ponsoldt co-wrote the screenplay with Eggers. Like many Eggers stories, The Circle’s story focuses on a modern-day problem and the multiple ramifications that come along with that situation.
As a company, the Circle is like Google, Facebook, and Apple all rolled into one. Like Google, it has technology that can see all over the world. Similar to Apple, it has its symbol on its computers. All of these companies have an influence on how the Circle acts. Most troubling, the Circle has introduced SeeChange, a system that uses tiny camera to monitor activity.
The World of the Circle is one that is menacingly nice. Nobody is “forcing” anybody to do anything, but they strongly suggest you do it. It is like being hugged to death. In the making of documentary, Ponsoldt discusses casting the parts with actors one might not think off. For the antagonists, Ponsoldt casts Tom Hanks as Circle CEO Eamon Bailey and Patton Oswalt as COO Tom Stenton. By doing this, Ponsoldt makes the villains seem friendly, even likable. For the hacker, he cast John Boyega instead of an actor one might normally expect to play a hacker.
The marketing presents the film as more of a thriller, complete with a creepy song singing “they’re watching you.” In reality, the film is more of a drama interested in the issues that such a situation creates. According to the creators of The Circle, the film is meant to examine the ramifications of constant social media rather than to say anything specific about them. Emma Watson and Ponsoldt both viewed this as a strength of the movie. Like EDtv, the film also bombed.
One of the reasons Ponsoldt wanted to adapt the book was because of the lead character of Mae Holland, who he had mixed feelings towards throughout the story. Throughout the story, Mae goes through multiple transformations in the story.
Mae begins the film in a dead-end job at a call center. She has a beat-up old car that breaks down constantly. Her father (the late Bill Paxton) suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. As a hobby, she kayaks. Then her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) gets her an interview with a circle. Another friend, Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), does not like the company. Mercer comes from a more hands-on background and is sort of a luddite in the story.
Over the course of film, Mae will discover all that is great and horrible about the story.
As a company, the Circle presents both positive and negative consequences for Mae Holland. At the beginning, she likes their benefits, while finding some of their policies insane.
After being nicely reprimanded at work, Mae becomes more involved with the Circle, which leads to potential problems with her friends and family. For example, Mae posts a picture of an antler chandelier Mercer made. This causes a backlash where multiple people label Mercer a “deer killer” and send him death threats. Mercer purposefully distances himself from her after this.
When the Circle’s video technology saves her life, she decides to become fully transparent. This means that she will live her whole life on the Circle’s camera system. She becomes a puppet for the Circle’s needs and even suggests more drastic policies. These include suggesting forcing every citizen to become a member of The Circle when they turn eighteen. Although her parents are on board and even set up multiple camera up in their house, they eventually take them down because they need their privacy.
Things come to a head when Mercer dies in a car accident when The Circle pursues him with drones. After spending some time away from the Circle, Mae decides to go back and expose the circle with the help of Ty. They decide to martyr Mercer with this action.
Once again, the solution involves exposing the creators of the Company. At a meeting in the Circle’s auditorium. Mae invites Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton of the Circle go fully transparent, exposing all their secrets as well. By exposing the creators, Mae becomes a hero in her own right. When Tom shuts off the power to hide their personal information, “the Circlers” turn on their phones. Mae leads them out of the Auditorium.
The Final scene has Mae kayaking again. A drone flies down and films her. The last image of the film on a wall of screens with many other images. While the Circle might have been stopped, this is still a complicated situation.
All of the films have a similar arc: an average person becomes a media sensation, realizes the consequences of it, and then exposes the creators of the media. In all of these films, media is seen as something that is invasive to privacy.
What changes between every movie is what they believe how the media affects privacy. The Truman Show tells the story of a man who has lived his entire life on a show and becomes a product in of himself. EDtv examines how media affects the problems one already has. Nerve sees how media can both fulfill dreams and destroy them. The Circle explores how constant media can be both a blessing and a curse. In all of the films, media serves as a primary antagonist. However, in each one, it antagonizes the protagonist differently.