Quiz Show

Reviewed By Robert Flaxman
Posted 10/12/04 17:14:42

"Now who's being na´ve?"
5 stars (Awesome)

It is commonly suggested that the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy served as something of a loss of innocence for the American people, acting as a significant part of the transition between the uptight moral cleanliness of the 1950s and the radicalism of the mid-to-late 1960s. Robert Redford's film Quiz Show puts the loss of 50s innocence squarely at the end of that decade, however, with the 1958 revelation that the popular quiz program "Twenty-One" was rigged.

We already know something is up at the beginning of Quiz Show, as the program's sponsor (Martin Scorsese) calls producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) and tells him that the returning champion, Herb Stempel (John Turturro), has peaked in popularity and needs to be replaced. Enter Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), scion of a prominent New England family of writers. It is here that we learn the fix is well and truly in: Enright instructs Stempel to miss an easy question, while proposing to Van Doren that he be read questions whose answers he already knows. Both men are resistant at first, but each falls into line due to a healthy desire for fame.

Stempel later learns that Enright's promise of a panel show spot was something on which he couldn't follow through. Humiliated, he attempts to blow the whistle, but has his testimony sealed. This oddity catches the eye of Justice Department lawyer Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), who begins an investigation into what exactly Stempel and others know about the goings-on at "Twenty-One."

The film acts something like historical fiction. It uses real characters and some real situations, but does quite a bit of manipulation for dramatic purposes. Screenwriter Paul Attanasio recreates entire conversations that may or may not have happened. While not perfect as historical text, Quiz Show knows what it has to do for the sake of its own narrative, and pretty much everything works the way it should. The film's plot flows naturally from point to point, helped along by Attanasio's sharp, clever dialogue.

Even more effective are the characters, a motley crew of types thrown together by the situation. Stempel, the nebbish Jew, relishes his chance at fame partly because of the money, but also because of a lifetime of unpopularity. "They love me for the same reason they used to hate me," he proclaims to his wife, "because I'm the guy who knows everything." Van Doren is his direct opposite - a good-looking WASP with an Ivy League background who doesn't need the money but lets himself get swept up in the fame.

Everyone is affected by the chance for fame in some way. Goodwin overplays his hand because he's so anxious to, as he puts it, "put television on trial." Enright takes the fall to cover up the involvement of the network and the sponsor in the fix - he knows he'll never work again if he implicates a corporation. Fame, if a more anonymous fame, means plenty to him as well.

The cast deserves a lot of credit for selling the characters as well, as Quiz Show is an acting showcase. From Fiennes to Morrow, Turturro to Paymer, down to smaller parts for Scorsese and Christopher McDonald, there isn't a single weak link. Paul Scofield, as Mark Van Doren, was well-deserving of his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but that he was the only actor in the film to get such recognition is baffling. Perhaps the Academy simply could not choose from the stable of outstanding performances.

The film was based in part on the real Goodwin's book Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, but Goodwin's character in the film doesn't learn his lesson until the end - one can sense his sixties voice forming in the disillusionment he personally experiences. He wants to believe that Van Doren is innocent as the latter insists, but as the evidence piles up he struggles. "Are you telling me that everybody got the answers but you?" he barks during a confrontation. Later, he feels confident that Enright will admit the truth, but no such thing happens. "I thought we were gonna get television," he complains near the film's end. "The truth is, television is gonna get us."

In Goodwin's words, we can sense the bitterness over how false the fašade of the 1950s was, and how this helped shape the social change of the next decade, though the film itself concludes well before that point. Quiz Show plays like an ironic comment on nostalgia, showing how a simpler time isn't necessarily a good thing. The denizens of Redford's 1950s are na´ve almost to a man, unaware of how their actions fit into a larger world. Consequences are dispensed with; the characters live for what seems smartest at the time, only to feel let down later when those decisions don't pan out.

Quiz Show refuses to dispense easy answers, but its tone can be guessed at from the cynical sadness of its final minutes. America was a nation cheated, but there was no happy ending in the revelation - Redford and Attanasio believe that the real criminals got away, leaving a trail of wounded lives in their wake. Did America learn its lesson? Not if the "where are they now" titles just before the credits roll are to be believed. In such a way, the film is not just dispensing with nostalgia for the halcyon days of American society, but with American society in sum total - you can get away with anything in this country if you have the power.

It's a message that definitely comes straight out of Goodwin, a noted liberal, but the subtlety with which it is delivered only strengthens the film. Redford hasn't directed a left-wing polemic, but rather a sorrowful lament on the way the system works. He's used great acting, great writing, and a perhaps surprisingly compelling plot to do so - and in so doing has made a film that ranks as one of the strongest and most important in recent memory.

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