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>
A colorful, well-written portrayal of a forgotten event in the history of television
"Quiz Show" is the type of movie that invites viewers to ask themselves how they would act under similar circumstances. If you were a contestant on a TV game show and the producers offered you a load of money to do a fixed show where you're given the answers in advance, would you do it? Or would you turn your back on the producers and walk away? In this film, Charles Van Doren does not walk away, but he does hesitate. As played by Ralph Fiennes, he's a bright, likable fellow who seems like a good man despite his willing participation in a fraud.
The film is smartly written, tightly plotted, and populated by interesting characters. It is also entertaining. It unfolds like a great detective story, except that no murder has taken place. There isn't even any crime. As shocking as it may seem, there were no laws against rigging a quiz show back in the 1950s, because no lawmaker had considered that such a thing would ever happen. When the scandal came to light, those working behind the scenes who engineered the fraud managed to survive with their careers intact, and the people who suffered the harshest consequences were the contestants, who were simply pawns. That says something about the distortions of television culture, but this theme, among others, is nicely understated in the film.
Director Robert Redford has a gift for finding the drama in seemingly mundane topics, but not in a contrived or manipulative fashion. The '50s quiz show scandal is the sort of topic that could easily have made for a preachy and artificial TV movie. It's a great credit to Redford's film that it doesn't contain any long moralizing speeches. Though the movie has many great quotes, the characters talk like real people, and the situations grow out of their personalities. We end up rooting for several characters at once. We want Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), the lawyer sent to investigate the show, to succeed in uncovering the scandal. But we also feel for Van Doren, who almost comes off as a tragic hero. We even feel a little for the pathetic and unlikable Herb Stemple (John Turturro), the whistle-blower who's been bamboozled and humiliated by the producers.
The movie works on the most basic level as simple drama, the high points being those scenes where Goodwin uncovers each new layer to the case. The first time I saw the film, I was put in mind of a detective story like "Colombo." There's no mystery, of course, since we know from the start who the perpetrators are, what they did and how they did it. But the labyrinth of corruption that Goodwin must probe is fascinating to behold.
Goodwin naively assumes he's practically taking down the network (the movie hints that the scandal goes to the very top) even though no laws were broken. The situation has the feel of a conspiracy, the people talking in euphemisms like they were mob bosses or something ("For seventy grand you can afford to be humiliated"). The contestants themselves are no dummies: they are smart, knowledgeable people who could very well have been used honestly on a trivia show. The producers simply wanted to control the responses to make the show more dramatic. What made this unethical was the amount of deception it required. It's one thing to have entertainment that everyone knows is fake (e.g., pro-wrestling), it's quite another to pass off something phony as something real. Of course now I'm getting preachy, something I praised the movie for not doing. But that's exactly my point. In a lesser movie, there would have been characters explaining the distinction. Here, it's left to us to assess the situation. That's the best kind of movie, the kind that invites further discussion.
Above all, the movie is about integrity and what defines it. Goodwin (in a classic reversal of our culture's typical view of lawyers) is the boy scout in the story, who says at one point that he would never have participated in the fraud if he were in Van Doren's shoes, and we believe him. But a large part of the film involves his relationship with Van Doren, a man he likes and doesn't want to hurt. His desire to protect Van Doren (but not Stemple) from ruin while bringing down the true perpetrators of the scandal leads to one of the movie's most memorable lines, when Goodwin's wife calls Goodwin "the Uncle Tom of the Jews," because he's sticking up for a corrupt Gentile. We respect Goodwin and admire his reluctance to hurt Van Doren, but we, too, wonder whether he's handling the case with the proper objectivity.
The movie has some interesting subtexts dealing with the anti-Semitism coming from Jewish producers themselves. In one scene, producers Dan Enright and Albert Freedman basically explain to Van Doren, in so many words, that Stemple is too Jewish for the show. This is a phenomenon I've rarely seen dealt with in the movies, possibly because there aren't too many films depicting the history of television.
The film is often criticized for departing significantly from the facts of the case. For example, the real Goodwin actually played a minimal role in exposing the scandal. I can understand why those involved in the case may have resented these inaccuracies. But filmmakers do have dramatic license. Probably this film should have changed the names of the characters from their real-life counterparts, to reinforce the fact that it's not an exact account of what happened. The purpose of movies isn't to duplicate real life, but to reflect on real life, to gain fresh insight, and "Quiz Show" achieves that purpose with dignity and style.
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