Quiz Show (1994)
★★★ / ★★★★
Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) had a great memory for the most minute facts. It served him well while participating in a game show called “Twenty-One,” but the businessmen behind the show wanted to get rid of him because ratings have plateaued. They attributed the trend to Herbie’s unlikable personality and plain looks. The show was in dire need of new blood and the current champion was to be replaced by Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a university professor with classic American good looks and a charming personality. But the two men with record-breaking winning streaks were not as they seemed: behind the scenes, they were given the answers to the questions prior to appearing on live television. Based on Richard N. Goodwin’s novel and adapted to the screen by Paul Attanasio, “Quiz Show” was an unflattering but highly effective look at the relationship between television and advertising in the 1950s. It was also about the integrity of man and the popular saying, “Everyone has a price.” Stempel and Van Doren, merely pawns in the grand scheme of things, got more than they bargained for and the picture positioned us to experience their rise and fall along with the irrevocable shame born from their trials. The moment they decided to prostitute their intelligence was also the moment they put themselves in harm’s way, being paid significant amount of money for a reason. For a price, they became the most visible figures of a lie. Millions of audiences across the country were witnesses of that lie. Visibility meant responsibility. We observed, in careful direction and fascination by Robert Redford, these two men standing on their tiptoes in increasingly deep dark waters. But what I loved about the film was we learned about and identified with the two men’s circumstances. Stempel was a working class and he thought he could use the money for his family. But he also loved fame and being in front of the camera. He desperately sought for attention and those around him perceived him as unstable. On the other hand, Van Doren decided to join the show because he hoped that he could inspire kids to take part in active learning. In a way, he also did it to make his father (Paul Scofield), a man whose name didn’t go unrecognized in posh parties and gatherings, proud. Next to his father (or his reputation), he felt small. Both Stempel and Van Doren were good men but, like us, they had flaws. Instead of providing us easy answers, Redford painted the two men as both victims and accomplices instead of villains. I must also highlight Rob Morrow’s performance as Dick Goodwin, a shrewd lawyer who gathered the facts and exposed the treachery. I was transfixed on his swagger mixed with a New York accent and powers of deduction. “Quiz Show” made me think about popular game shows like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “Jeopardy.” Martin Scorsese’s character wisely pointed out that the reason people watched game shows was not due to great feats of intelligence. People watched because of the money. Somehow, I couldn’t disagree.