RETRO REVIEW – ‘Quiz Show’

This Robert Redford drama is an interesting examination of the infamous 'Twenty One' scandal.

Review by J.T. Johnson

ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: September 14, 1994
DIRECTOR: Robert Redford
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Michael Ballhaus
WRITER: Paul Attanasio
MUSIC: Mark Isham

Here’s a question for you. How much of a game show should be dedicated to truth and how much of it should be to strictly entertain the public? This is examined in “Quiz Show”, a film from director Robert Redford that talks about the infamous “Twenty One” scandal where it was revealed that the game was rigged the whole time.

The movie opens with Herb Stempel (John Turturro) as the reigning champion on the show. When it looks like his ratings are beginning to slip, the producers of the show decide that it is time for Herb to take a dive. They make literature Professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) the new champion when they ask him a question that they know he can answer.

Charles becomes an instant celebrity and while he is reluctant at first, he does accept the questions and then the answers to the questions in order to keep him on as the champion. Herb, on the other hand, feels that the producers have burned him out of a deal. Therefore, he goes to a grand jury to reveal the nature of the rigged game and eventually Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a special counsel for the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee takes up an investigation on the show.

The movie does provide its story in a matter-of-fact manner, though it is important that even Redford himself has admitted that he took dramatic licenses with the real story. For the most part, people like the real Van Doren have stated that most of the film is correct except for a few minor things, the biggest of which seems to be condensing three years worth of investigations down into a one year time span. I only bring this up in order to tell you that if you’re looking for a100% accuracy, then you should simply look up the details of the real investigation.

“Quiz Show” is a hell of a drama, though, with superb direction from Redford. He has to get a lot of information out to the audience and manages to pull this off almost flawlessly with a narrative that flows from one scene to the next. Quick montages set up Van Doran’s rise in the spotlight and the film even develops a tragic friendship between Van Doran and Goodwin.

In fact, the most interesting aspect of this film is the Goodwin/Van Doran relationship. Throughout the film, Goodwin is going after the show yet he likes and respects Van Doran. He even tries to give Van Doran a way out, but Van Doran’s guilty conscience is also getting the better of him.

The performances by both Fiennes as Van Doran and Morrow as Goodwin are Oscar-worthy. The rest of the cast is good as well, though I must admit that I found Turturro’s performance as Herb to be over-the-top and annoying more than anything. Granted, the character is not likable to begin with, but I think that Turturro just overdoes it at times.

The question about whether or not a show has a moral responsibility to be honest with their game shows or simply made for entertainment is not completely answered. That’s left for you to decide. What makes this film worth watching is to see if the characters themselves will rise up to tell the truth in order to simply do the right thing.

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