How much is your life worth?
That question is the main theme of Quiz Show, an intelligent and finely acted film directed by Robert Redford that’s about to celebrate its 25th anniversary! This movie examines the game show scandals that rocked the late 1950s with two shows specifically: The 64,000 Question and Twenty-One. So, what was the scandal? Why was it such a problem and why should we, the viewer, care? And, why should you see this movie, even though it wasn’t a commercial success?
Game shows are a lot of fun to watch. From the questions that are asked, the prizes to be won, the money that can be earned and just seeing how smart the contestants are. It’s rather exciting! But what happens when we learn that everything we watched is all fake? That can surprise and anger a lot of people.
Twenty-One was one of those game shows involved in a scandal, one that that duped some fifty million viewers who watched it every night. The show, owned by NBC, ran from 1956-1958 and was a trivia game where contestants answered questions from a variety of topics. The world got to see who was the smartest in the room and, the more questions you answered right, the more money you earned. The scandal involved specific contestants who the public took a liking to. They would remain on the show for as long as the ratings were high and were given the answers to questions they would be asked, ensuring the odds of winning the game. This would happen days before contestants even stepped onto the stage.
Quiz Show shows us one person that this tactic happened to named Herb Stempel (John Turturro), a Jewish man who is a walking encyclopedia. Due to low ratings observed by NBC and the show’s sponsor Geritol, a supplementary tonic, it’s decided that the time has come for Stempel, the current champion, to lose and move on. During a dinner with one of the show’s producers, he is told to answer a specific question wrong despite knowing the answer. The question is, “What picture won the Academy Award in 1955?” The answer is Marty but he’s told to answer On The Waterfront.
In doing so, Stempel will lose the game and his opponent will become the new champion. That champion is Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the son of a prominent literary family and a professor at Columbia University. That will surely boost the ratings and make more people view the show, right? “I mean, a professor is surely smarter than some Jew, right?” That’s literally what the producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freeman (Hank Azaria) say and how they see the scenario. Prior to every show, they would rehearse the questions and answers with their contestants to make sure they knew the answers and could keep winning.
These producers were smart because they supplied false promises of giving the contestants something in return once their time was up. Sort of like a non-disclosure agreement to keep you from talking about it with the authorities, which leads us to Richard N. Goodwin (Rob Morrow). He’s a young Congressional lawyer who reads in the papers that a grand jury was convened in the wake of rumors that quiz shows were rigged. Goodwin travels to New York City where the show is produced and begins an independent investigation. He interviews past and present contestants, the producers of the show and many more. There is very little evidence to find, as most of what is said can be considered hearsay, but Goodwin presses on.
Think about it: if someone offered you a large sum of money, would you take it? Would you ask questions or just blindly accept the offer, no matter the repercussions that could follow in the event this information becomes public? It’s a matter of reputation, moral choices and a decision that will have a lasting effect.
I won’t spoil anymore information but, if you get the gist of it, this movie is about how the scandal was uncovered and the subsequent hearing that later unfolded. While watching this movie, it reminded me of another great investigative film called All the President’s Men, which also starred Redford as Bob Woodward. Following the investigator and seeing the show at work kept me really engaged. Ralph Fiennes, who completed Schindler’s List just a year prior, gives a stellar performance as Van Doren, whose reputation is on the line once he learns the truth.
Redford works with a well-written and intelligent script from the hands of screenwriter and former film critic Paul Attanasio. The movie begins as we follow the game show itself, then takes us behind the scenes to see how it really works. This movie is exciting because we are figuring out the truth just as the characters reach similar conclusions. Can you imagine if Ken Jennings (the infamous Jeopardy winner) was fed the answers during his entire time on that show? People would be outraged because, in a sense, we would’ve been lied to thinking he really was that smart. We see this clearly when we follow Van Doren’s character.
Why You Should See This Movie
You know, a lot of people I’ve talked seem to think that a movie is only good when it’s a commercial success. I don’t think it really matters as long as the movie is good in its own right, and Quiz Show is simply amazing to watch. I was never bored watching it despite thinking it was a bit overlong, but nevertheless, the acting and writing is top-notch here. All the actors involved do great work here and once it was over, I wanted to watch it again!
Personally, I love investigative films. All the President’s Men, Zodiac and now Quiz Show are just some fine examples of movies that grab your attention and involve you in the mystery. It’s available on Netflix right now, so if you’re bored with what’s available or are looking for something different, then Quiz Show is something worth adding to your queue.