TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES

Robert Redford's new film, Quiz Show--his fourth, and perhaps best, effort as a director--stars Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren, the "champion" of the Fifties game show Twenty-One. The role of Van Doren, who was publicly disgraced by revelations that Twenty-One was rigged, is one which, two decades ago, would have been perfect for Redford himself. Fiennes is probably a better actor than Redford ever was, yet the young Redford might well have been better in this particular part--his faint sense of embarrassment at his own Waspy looks, so hilariously used by Michael Ritchie in 1972's The Candidate, would have served him again here.

Ah, but how differently one feels from behind the camera! Redford hired Fiennes right off the set of Schindler's List (in which Fiennes was making so indelible a debut as the SS fiend), and he spends much of Quiz Show glorying in the young actor's flaxen hair and razor-sharp cheekbones. Redford gets so enamored of the poster-art Nordic beauty of Fiennes' face that he teeters on the edge of the very trap his movie depicts. There's an irony to this that's even more delicious because, I think, it's entirely unconscious. Make no mistake, Quiz Show is certainly one of the best films of the year--punchy, bustlingly inhabited, wisecrackingly funny. What's surprising about the picture, though, is the degree to which it engages the emotions. It's more moving than any mainstream film since the powerhouse trio of Philadelphia/Schindler/In the Name of the Father that were released this past holiday season. But each of those films concerned a bona fide, inarguable societal tragedy. Quiz Show, on the other hand, concerns the fixing of a corny TV game show. An interesting story, to be sure, but a minor, anecdotal one in terms of American history, or even the history of broadcasting (at the end of the day, no laws had even been broken). So if tears are shed over it, from what source do they flow? Most of the prerelease discussion of Quiz Show has carried on about the idea that the Twenty-One scandal (and the other, roughly contemporary, game-show scandals) heralded the beginning of America's "loss of innocence," the disenchantment with public institutions that would become explosive in the following two decades. Redford and the film's other participants have endorsed this as the theme. But if America was really so naive a virgin that we could be robbed of our innocence by TV game shows, we should be grateful for so gentle a deflowering. Redford and company sell their movie short by emphasizing these nostalgic notions. Intentionally or not, Quiz Show gets past the specifics of its material and into subtler, more difficult terrain--the face of American anti-Semitism and the perpetuation, often by Jews themselves, of a class-consciousness based on Wasp values as an ideal. Though its approach is less recklessly ambitious, Quiz Show has at least as much to say about the 20th-century American psyche as does Forrest Gump. Although the time frame is compressed--events from 1956 to 1959 are presented as if they took place in a matter of months--and some other liberties are taken, Quiz Show dramatizes the fall of Twenty-One with what seems to be reasonable faithfulness. According to the testimony of several contestants, it wasn't really a game show at all--it was simply theatre. Players were coached not only in the answers, but in how to pantomime the struggle to recall them most dramatically.

The film's account begins with the efforts of Dan Enright (David Paymer), the NBC show's producer, to find a new face to replace the long-reigning champ, an abrasive, working-class Jew from Brooklyn named Herbert Stempel (John Turturro), whose appeal as an Everyman is thought by the sponsor to have worn off. Enright's prayers are answered when his assistant (Hank Azaria) stumbles across Van Doren, a pretty-faced young professor at Columbia, and the son of accomplished literati--his mother (Elizabeth Wilson) is a novelist, his father (Paul Scofield) a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.

After struggling with his conscience, not too long and not too hard, Van Doren allows himself to win by answering questions on which he's been briefed, and Stempel is talked into taking a fall on an easy question (this satisfies Enright's instinct for drama, which seems to have been acute; the man missed his calling). Van Doren prospers, becoming a big prof on campus and enough of a celebrity to make the cover of Time magazine and to win a lucrative contract from NBC to appear on the Today show. Stempel, embittered, kicks up sufficient fuss to prompt a grand jury investigation into the quiz shows, but the findings are sealed by the judge. The oddity of this catches the eye of Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), an ambitious young investigator for the Congressional Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight, and he starts a probe of his own. Goodwin slowly begins to see that Stempel's charges against Enright are not just disgruntled rantings.

Although the cinematography, by Michael Ballhaus, is coolly ravishing, there's nothing especially innovative about Redford's direction of Quiz Show on a cinematic level. But if Redford isn't a visual genius, he's a skilled, slick craftsman possessed of a confident touch with actors. It's in the content of the story, and in the cunningly orchestrated performances, that the film finds its distinction.

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