In Capricorn One (1977), three NASA astronauts are coerced into faking a Mars landing, to dupe a global TV audience that the mission has been a success — while in The Truman Show (1998), a man, living in what he believes is a normal seaside town, is the unknowing central character of a reality TV show, and the town is a giant TV stage.
Illusion and reality, play a prominent role in both narratives; the main characters are presented with the choice of: living a lie, or exposing the lie. The three NASA astronauts are forced into the deception, fearing their families will be harmed if they do not cooperate. Truman lives in ignorance, not knowing that everything around him is fake — that he is a pawn, in the highly commercialised entertainment show. Both ‘fictions’ — the bogus Mars landing, and Truman’s stage set town — accurately mimic reality; both worlds are fabricated for television audiences, and cynically exploit the welfare of the main characters.
In these worlds ‘the media’ has grown from a democratic public service, portraying the truth, into a dystopian mechanism, serving big business. Everyone is for sale. And when ‘they’ no longer need you, because you refuse to fit in with their lie, ‘they’ want you dead.
Capricorn One echoes 1970s paranoia of the 1970s ‘conspiracy story’, in a post-Watergate culture, where the establishment is almost expected to hide the truth. The film expresses a Chomsky-like perception of media manipulation — designed to dupe the unsuspecting public into believing the elite’s narrative: in this case, that massive investment in space exploration is successfully translating into a new age of scientific discovery. Sky high public expectation, and the pressure to perform, have created aspirations that outstrip America’s ability to deliver; now the establishment can only satisfy expectations by televising a fictional simulation of the real thing.
Truman’s world is a facsimile of reality, begging the question: if everything accurately mimics reality, and he has ‘everything’ he needs, why would he want to leave? The answer is, because he strives to lead an honest life, with real emotions, to be true to who he is. Truman must find reality in order to find true love, and to discover his identity. Although he has a comfortable life — Truman rejects it for an authentic experience.
The Truman Show explores celebrity in a popular, mass-market culture; the thirst for celebrity news, and the price of fame. It alludes to the experience of being in a so-called ‘surveillance society’, where the authority is watching everyone all the time. He is, unknowingly, being exploited in a highly commercial process, where his most intimate and private moments are turned into a marketable commodity. But, his experience feels akin to being under the scrutiny of the Stasi, in a repressive communist state.
Truman’s belief, that his world isn’t what it appears to be, creates a paranoid anxiety that approaches insanity. It would normally be ‘crazy’ for a person to believe they are the central character in a reality show, and everything around them was ‘fake’, but in Truman’s case, this is not a schizophrenic delusion, it’s actually true. The story plays on social taboo, going against everyone around you — disregarding peer pressure. The Truman Show is about individuality: becoming your own person.
The astronauts in Capricorn One are national heroes, fulfilling the American dream, successful achievers — patriots. Their instinct is to tell the truth to the American people, to expose the lie. The deception they are complicit with, points to a wider failing within the system; unable to reliably harness technologies, it is faking the truth, rather than admitting failure.
Exposing the truth is a necessary, but dangerous choice, in a conspiracy story — the powerful establishment has a vested interest in ensuring their version of events is believed; they will go to almost any length to stop the truth getting out — murdering astronauts, or drowning a man sailing in a simulation ‘sea’. Once their lie is exposed, the game is over.
Capricorn One is a warning: this is what can happens when the establishment — strained to breaking point — buckles under pressure to perform, and fabricates the truth (much like Volkswagen’s faked emissions figures scandal). The story ends on an upbeat, celebratory note, because the lie is exposed due to the sacrifice of the astronauts, and the determination of the reporter. In a democratic system, with a free press, there are people able to investigate large scale cover-ups. The Truman Show is also a warning that ends on a celebratory note. Truman escapes his prison, and, like the lead astronaut in Capricorn One, is reunited with his loved one.