QUIZ SHOW (1994) ***3/4. Produced and directed by Robert Redford. Screenplay, Paul Attanasio, based on the book "Remembering America: A Voice Production design, John Hutman. Editing, Stu Linder. Art director, Tim Galvin. Set decorator, Samara Schaffer. Costumes, Kathy O'Rear. Music, Mark Isham. Cast: John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes, David Paymer, Paul Scofield, et al. A Hollywood Pictures release. 130 min. Rated PG-13.
Since entering movie-making in 1980 with the four-Oscar winner (including Picture and Director) "Ordinary People," Robert Redford has made three more films: the little-seen and underrated "The Milagro Beanfield War," the much-praised "A River Runs Trough It," and now the superb "Quiz Show." This is not the output of an industrial director but the work of a craftsman-artist who, by and large, allies strong introspection with strong character depiction.
Redford directs "Quiz Show" with unusual vigor but neither as a social thriller nor as an expanded "60 Minutes" expose. With the information highway and the media going full blast today, almost all filmgoers know that the movie is about the real-life scandal of the show "Twenty-One" in the late 1950s.
For dramatic purposes the film compresses a period of three years into one, makes many changes, takes liberties and adds inventions. For the exceptionally fine script, writer Paul Attanasio, the former film critic of the Washington Post, has declared that Redford wanted "a detective story," so that modifications, suspense and surprises were woven in. But they are artfully done, the details in the step by step development of the story -- even if you know its outcome -- are engrossing, and the whole thing rings true throughout.
Whether or not the movie's liberties are themselves a form of cheating for fame and fortune or acceptable creative-artistic license is not an easy question to answer. The fact remains that name-naming films from "Patton" to "Reds" or "Bugsy," inevitably have built-in distortions. So the great majority of viewers judge them for their effectiveness as movie-movies first and history second, and do not make a big difference between the biographical "Lawrence of Arabia" and the fictional "Dr. Zhivago."By such standards, "Quiz Show" is a dandy of a picture.
Quiz shows were the rage in the 1950s, with, at one time, some three dozen of them on the air, with NBC's "Twenty-One" the king of them all. The scandal began when reigning champion Herbie Stempel was dethroned by Charles Van Doren who became something of a national hero, complete with groupies a la Frank Sinatra. In turn, after a long winning stretch, Van Doren lost to attorney Vivienne Nearing and eventually, both he and the show were revealed as frauds.
Stempel (Turturro) is a married graduate student, a poor Jew from Queens, and physically uncharismatic -- he has "a face for radio" someone says. Dan Enright (Paymer) and his partner, the florid master of ceremonies who pushes the sponsor's product (Geritol), with the hands-off connivance of the bosses of Geritol and NBC, decide that the audience can not identify with Stempel.
To increase audiences and revenues, Enright asks Stempel to take a dive. Nerdy Herbie is incensed but finally accepts. His replacement is Columbia University instructor Charles Van Doren (Fiennes) who is everything shabby Stempel was not. Suave, attractive and boyishly diffident, Charles is a patrician WASP from a famous family of scholars, writers and editors.
Like the quiz show, the movie itself plays with its audience. It is not until Van Doren surfaces and gets fed the answers that we realize that the show, including twitchy but intelligent Stempel, was rigged.
The disgruntled Stempel, as he goes from the King of Queens to a nobody, starts the expose ball rolling but gets nowhere until an idealistic/ambitious young lawyer, Dick Goodwin (Morrow) a rookie investigator for the Senate's Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, smells a rat and begins his own scouting.
"Quiz Show" is vivid in every way and almost flawlessly acted down to minor roles. It spreads its narrative among many characters, so that no single part or bravura performance steals the limelight. It involves several people and several notions, among the latter the sway of television, TV as a leveler, the gullibility of the public, the American (now world-wide) obsession with public figures and materialism, and the manipulators' hypocrisy.
When Van Doren tells Enright that his own icon was Joe De Maggio, Enright talks a reluctant Van Doren into cheating by invoking the cultural good Van Doren could do. "The country needs an intellectual Joe De Maggio." Yet when push comes to shove, he says :"Audiences don't show up to watch intellectual accomplishments but to watch the money."
It is money too that motivates the fake contestants, including, on the face of it, Charles Van Doren who earns a shameful $86 a week at Columbia, the going rate then and, if adjusted for today's dollars, still close to the going rate now.
Fiennes, the English actor who played the sadistic Nazi officer in "Schindler's List" looks nothing like the real Charles Van Doren, yet conveys perfectly (thanks to script and direction) the golden boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth, an intellectually bright but emotionally confused and not-quite-grown man. In subtle ways, the film shows Charles opting for a celebrity that is crass by the elegant Van Doren standards, but helps him assert himself and get away from the Van Doren cocoon.
"Quiz Show"'s great gallery of portraits is shown in a funny-sad social and psychological context, and within beautifully recreated settings that bring the times and places back to life. The film also makes some serious inroads of the relations of Jews and Gentiles, and, by omission, black Americans, as these are hardly seen, if at all.
While the TV show scandals were headliners in the 1950s, they look like small potatoes compared to subsequent ones like Watergate, Iran-Contra and the endless revelations of pork-barrels, corruption in high places, graft, billion-dollar frauds, as well as today's sleazy TV programs.
If "Quiz Show" says something applicable to us now, it is that not only the more things change, the more they stay the same, but that they get worse.
[Review published 14 October 1994]