Anational scandal that arguably inflicted an early wound on the American postwar moral fiber is smoothly dramatized in “Quiz Show.” With colorful, bright characters playing out a lamentable true-life scenario against the lively backdrop of ’50s television and the vibrant New York City of the era, Robert Redford’s handsome, smartly constructed new film stands likely to capture the imagination of the educated, culturally inclined public. Difference between good B.O. results in more upscale markets and wider acceptance will be determined by whether pic’s marketing can make younger audiences curious about a popular phenomenon from four decades ago.
While constantly applying ethical, political and intellectual shadings in order to deepen the context and implications of the episode, Redford and screenwriter Paul Attanasio telescope history rather severely in squeezing the events of three years into a matter of months. But their points are well and carefully made, and if the film lacks an edge of excitement and daring, the story still proves strongly engrossing.
Set in 1958, pic sweeps the viewer into a live broadcast of the NBC game show “Twenty-One.” At the time, it was the first among many knowledge-oriented programs that enthralled the nation, a refined match in which two contestants confined to “isolation booths” seemed to wrack their brains to answer relatively difficult questions.
At the outset, the king of “Twenty-One” is Herbie Stempel (John Turturro), a brainy, ill-mannered Jewish grad student from Queens who has fended off all opponents for weeks and earned a small fortune in the process. Finally, the show’s producer, Dan Enright (David Paymer), asks Stempel to take a dive for a large fee, thus allowing a new champion, the handsome, brilliant, patrician Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), to be crowned.
Although Van Doren, along with the rest of the nation, believes that the show features honest competition, Enright makes it clear to him from the beginning that the show’s staff will feed him answers. After initially wavering, Van Doren goes along with the ruse, persuaded that it’s been done that way all along and no one will ever know.
Before long, Van Doren is anointed “the egghead turned national hero.” A prince from one of the country’s most distinguished intellectual and literary families, this Columbia literature instructor becomes a heartthrob as well as an inspiration to students to bone up on their studies; it’s suddenly cool to be smart thanks to this Time magazine cover boy.
But shadowing it all is young Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a similarly bright Harvard grad holding down a Washington entry-level job on the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight. Getting wind of a grand jury’s quashing of a probe into alleged quiz show fraud, Goodwin scours Gotham checking things out for himself until Stempel finally spills the beans that he was supplied with his answers. It all ends in congressional hearings at which Van Doren at long last admits his complicity in the scandal.
Applying an evenhanded approach that gives all the principals more or less equal time and weight, and extending both sympathy and skepticism to the wrong-doers, filmmakers show
the shocking ease with which otherwise decent, even exemplary people were capable of such monumental lapses in ethics and morality. As the whistle-blower who raised a stink mainly because he felt shortchanged by the show’s producer, Stempel is granted a full measure of obnoxiousness, while with Van Doren one gets the feeling that this seemingly splendid gentleman should simply have known better.
Even Goodwin, a precocious troubleshooter and tenacious investigator, is painted as a less than full-fledged hero, in that he hoped to nail the network and the sponsor, not Van Doren, whom he had come to like enormously. Fact that the big boys got off scot-free seems like the first blow to a future ’60s liberal’s idealism.
Quiz show sequences are craftily done, and New York in the city’s heyday of the ’50s is deftly evoked. But the film’s best scenes are those that bring to life the now all-but-vanished elite intellectual ruling class. Highlights in this area are a summer birthday party at the Connecticut country home of Van Doren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning father, Mark (Paul Scofield), where Goodwin marvels at the family’s effortless erudition and sparring with Shakespearean quotations, and a climactic scene in which the son admits his transgressions to his father.
On the flip side, Stempel points out to Goodwin the anti-Semitism promoted by the show’s Jewish producers when they had Jews lose to WASPs. In general, the pursuit of truths hidden behind official postures and the loss-of-innocence themes that have regularly popped up in films by and starring Redford are on view here, gracefully expressed without grandstanding.
Cast members make the characters register strongly, even if the simple matter of accents suspends full credibility at numerous moments. Turturro, who put on considerable poundage for the role, is a perfect Stempel — pushy, nervous, uncouth and, finally, unwilling to be shoved aside. Morrow captures a quiet wryness along with Goodwin’s intelligence and drive, but his aimed-for Boston accent ranges all up and down the Eastern seaboard. Similarly, Fiennes, now drastically slimmed down from “Schindler’s List,” cuts a winning figure as Van Doren, but he can’t keep his English accent suppressed for long.
Supporting turns are excellent, including Paymer’s unapologetic Dan Enright, Christopher McDonald’s slick TV host Jack Barry and Mira Sorvino’s feisty wife of Goodwin. But best of all is Scofield, who, as the poet and professor Mark Van Doren, single-handedly sums up the feeling of privilege, irreproachable intellectual superiority and distractedness of the mid-century academic elite.
Redford’s cool, analytical directorial style well suits this probing cultural critique, although the film is a tad overlong and might have profited from a bit more dash at times. Splendid locations, lensing, production and costume design and music help bring to life a period that lives in many people’s memories but is still long gone.