Truman Burbank is the unsuspecting star of The Truman Show, a reality television program broadcast live around the clock worldwide. He has spent his entire life in the seaside town of Seahaven Island, which in reality is an enormous set near Hollywood, equipped with state of the art technology to simulate day and night and weather conditions, as well as 5000 cameras to record Truman’s every move. The producers discourage Truman from leaving Seahaven by instilling him with aquaphobia through the “death” of his TV father in a boating “accident”, and by constantly broadcasting and printing messages of the dangers of traveling. All of Seahaven’s other residents are actors. Christof, the show’s creator and executive producer, seeks to capture Truman’s real emotion and human behavior and give audiences a relatable everyman.
Despite Christof’s control, he could not predict all of Truman’s actions. During his college years, Truman was intended to fall in love with and marry co-student Meryl, but fell for Sylvia, an extra. Sylvia warned him that his reality is fake before being removed from the show, where Truman is told she moved to Fiji with her father. While Truman went on to marry Meryl, he continues to think about Sylvia. He uses scraps from magazines to recreate her face in secret, and seeks travel to Fiji. Outside of the show, Sylvia has become part of a “Free Truman” campaign that demands the end of the show and Truman’s freedom and accuses Christof of making his life worse, which Christof denies.
As the show goes on, Truman starts noticing unusual events: a spotlight falling out of the sky, a radio frequency that precisely describes his movements, and rain that falls only on him. Truman spots a disheveled man and recognizes him as his father, who had snuck back onto the set, but other actors quickly drag the man away. Despite efforts by Meryl and Truman’s best friend Marlon to reassure him, Truman becomes even more suspicious about his life. One day, he takes Meryl by surprise by going on an impromptu road trip, but their way is blocked by increasingly implausible emergencies. Meryl begins to break down from the stress; during an argument with Truman, she breaks character and is taken off the show. Hoping to bring Truman back to a controllable state, Christof re-introduces Truman’s father to the show properly, under the guise of having lost his memory after the boating accident. This helps the show regain the ratings lead with audiences and Truman seems to return to his routines, except he begins sleeping in his basement.
One evening, the production staff discovers that the sleeping Truman is completely out of their sight. Marlon is sent to check on Truman, finding that he has left a snowman dummy and a tape recorder playing snoring sounds in his place, and has disappeared through a makeshift tunnel. Marlon breaks character, revealing that Truman is gone, and Christof orders the first transmission cut in the show’s history, while a citywide search for Truman is launched. Audiences around the world, including the media, are drawn to this sudden change. Truman is found sailing out of Seahaven, having conquered his fear of water, and Christof resumes the broadcast as he sends a man-made lightning storm to try to capsize the boat, after an attempt to fetch Truman fails. Network executives fear that Truman may die on live television, but, while Christof’s bosses and assistants demand that he ends the show, Truman manages to persist. Realizing he cannot dissuade Truman any further, Christof ends the storm.
Truman continues to sail until, to his despair, his boat strikes the wall of the dome. He finds an exit door, but Christof, speaking directly to Truman through a speaker system, tries to convince him to stay, stating there is “no more truth” in the real world and that by staying in his artificial world, he would have nothing to fear. Truman considers this, then states: “In case I don’t see you… good afternoon, good evening, and good night,” (previously his catch-phrase), takes a bow, and exits. The viewers cheer Truman on, while Sylvia races to greet him. A defeated Christof’s supervisors end the program for the last time and the viewers check their television guides to see what else is on television.