Sunday 15 July 2007

Quiz Show (1994) Robert Redford

Back in the fifties, Robert Redford was probably the age to be glued to the TV like everyone else to watch quiz shows. I grew up on the things but in England and thirty years later, and usually on the BBC where there were no commercials, let alone ones spoken out aloud by the quizmaster. They were a different beast in this era when televisions were social devices. The only time I've ever experienced that sort of thing was when The Simpsons was new and I was visiting a friend at university. His flat magically filled up the moment the show started, and that's how it must have been for Twenty One way back when.

The quizmaster was Jack Barry but the star was Herbert Stempel, a geeky Jew with glasses, bad teeth and a sissy voice, who just happened to be a natural contestant. The people in charge wanted him off the air but he just keeps on winning. Enter Charles Van Doren, a young man with a brain who just happened to have a lot more going for him than that: he was much more of the picture that the sponsors wanted to sell to America: a WASP professor with a winning smile who comes from a well to do family. He turns up at the studios hoping to try out for another quiz show, completely honestly, but the producers decide otherwise.

They put him on Twenty One, hired to win. They'll feed him the answers and he'll kick out the Jewish guy, who they pay to take a dive. The only catch is that Van Doren doesn't want to cheat, so they have to feed him a question they know he knows the answer to. Luckily for them, the feel of $20k in his pocket helps him to see things their way and he'll play ball from then on. From then on everyone wins, except Stempel of course, who is getting more and more upset about the fact that he can't get back on TV. There's a grand jury investigation into the quiz shows but it's as bogus as everything else and only one man on a congressional oversight committee takes the ball and runs with it.

This is simply an exellent film. It entertains but it does much more than that. It gives a glimpse of a different time, a very good glimpse at both what people saw and what they didn't see. It's both history and nostalgia, and so teaches us as much about the history of what really happened as much as what everyone remembers. The very apt tagline was 'Fifty million people watched, but no one saw a thing.' Given the competition, this film would have been refreshing just for attempting to do that much, but it works very subtly indeed.

The characters are superbly defined and they dance plenty of dubious moral lines, to the degree that this could be studied as a course on ethics all on its own. Stempel plays along with the fix for financial reasons, to get out from under his mother-in-law's thumb and he's bitter enough to bring everyone else down with him. Meanwhile Van Doren plays along for other reasons; he's more interested in how much he's helping to turn kids back onto intellectual pursuits. He's doing the wrong thing for the right reason, and so the bad guy's a good guy and the good guy's a bad guy.

In fact there's a lot of studying going on during the film itself. There are a number of scenes where investigator Dick Goodwin tries to understand these character motivations. He watches Van Doren and knows that he'd be a superb contestant on his own right: he simply doesn't need the help he's given. Yet he takes it anyway and that makes him a cheat. Much of the story has to do with Goodwin balancing two opposing and completely believable testimonies to find which one is true and then to try to learn why. It's also about what he learns about himself in the process and how easily it is to corrupt anyone without them necessarily realising it, at least until it's too late.

The leads are superb: John Turturro as Stempel, Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren and Rob Morrow from Numb3rs as Goodwin. They all lend much more than surface to their characterisations and they should all be proud. The clever script backs up everything they do and gives them plenty of opportunity to shine. Odd lines that seem like throwaways have huge impact. I'm sure a second viewing would be as impactful as the first: even though I'll know exactly where it's going I'll see more about how it's done.

Some of the support is of an amazing calibre. People like Allan Rich as the NBC president and David Paymer as the producer of Twenty One are superb, but director Martin Scorsese is beyond that as the sponsor and veteran Paul Scofield is impeccable as Van Doren's poet father. It's not surprising that he was Oscar nominated, along with the script, the director and the film itself. Somehow though, none of them won. While Scofield lost to Martin Landau's portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, it's sad to see that everything else lost to Forrest Gump.

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