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An idealistic young lawyer working for a Congressional subcommittee in the late 1950s discovers that TV quiz shows are being fixed. His investigation focuses on two contestants on the show "Twenty-One": Herbert Stempel, a brash working-class Jew from Queens, and Charles Van Doren, the patrician scion of one of America's leading literary families. Based on a true story. Written by
Tim Horrigan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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He blames Charles Van Doren for his downfall. And of course, the real downfall of Herbert Stempel has always been Herbert Stempel.
Herbert Stempel, absolutely. Well, you met him. Does he seem stable to you?
Well, I definitely have an inkling of what you're talking about. He told me this whole story about how when a Jew is on the show, he always loses to a gentile, and then the gentile wins more money. Right? I mean, who could dream up a scheme like that?
A symptom of his Van Doren fixation!
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The ratings of 1950's quiz show `21' are in freefall due to the dominance of dorky Jew Herbie Stempel. The sponsors and network owners put pressure o the producers to replace him. When WASP Charles Van Doren comes to audition for another show they offer to ask him the questions that he already answered at the practice. Herbie is told to take a dive and Van Doren becomes an audience draw. However when Herbie starts making noise about a fix, a congress employee, Dick Goodwin, decides to go after the network.
This is a glossy, professional piece of work that sadly was never as huge as hit as it deserved to be (probably not enough explosions for the US audience). The story is based on a true story that happened in the 50's and it's used here partly as a bit of history but also as a look at television in terms of it's most basic desire to sell and entertain at any costs if that means fixing shows or getting the `right' ethnic groups on screen then s be it. It is effective on that level because it's hard to imagine anything has changed since 1950. The actual human drama comes between Van Doren and Stempel the film makes them both real people, neither good nor bad but having a bit of both.
Turturro is the best thing in this film. His Herbie has so many levels which he must touch throughout and he does them all well whether it's humour, pride, anger or realisation. Fiennes is good but at times I did find it hard to be sympathetic with a WASP born into a lofty family who gets more given to him. That said Fiennes did him well. Morrow was a strange choice famous at the time for Northern Exposure, he does a weird performance here almost doing an impression of what he thinks a tough Noo Yark investigator would be like. The supporting cast is filled out with quality so deep that even the extras are famous now! (Calista Flockhart turns up briefly). David Palmer and Hank Azaria are good as 21's producers, Christopher Mcdonald is good as the host people like Griffin Dunne, Mira Sorvino, Timothy Busefield and Barry Levinson come and go, and Martin Scorsese has a wicked role as the money behind the scandal.
It works on many levels at it's most basic it is a true story of great interest, at best it lets you see how television works and how men with money can rarely be reached for any wrong doing. Working on so many levels this is a polished professional drama that involves from start to finish.
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