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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Goodwin, a Jewish Harvard grad who went on to a career as a speechwriter for JFK and LBJ, wrote a memoir titled Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties, a chapter of which was the basis for Paul Attanasio's well-structured script. As the hero of Quiz Show, Goodwin finds himself the catalyst of conflict between Stempel, for whom he feels pitying distaste; Enright, for whom he feels career-making blood lust; and Van Doren, of whose Parnassian world he feels more envy and awe than he realizes. Herein lies the film's sharpest observation--that Goodwin's instinctive deference to and protectiveness of Van Doren, the only Gentile in the equation, comes from the same value conditioning that makes Enright gaff his show so that Jewish champs are always eventually replaced by Gentile champs. Van Doren's Waspishness makes him indestructible. When he delivers a high-flown confession to the congressional hearings, he's praised for his honesty by most of the same congressmen who have sternly reproved Stempel, like a boy-prince who has bravely 'fessed up after having been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Only one congressman, a swarthy-looking fellow from a New York district, refrains from fawning.
Yet even with these ironies right in the script, Redford ends up applying the same double standard in dramatic terms. Van Doren is presented as a haunted tragic hero and his ethical dilemma as a battle for his soul, accompanied by portentous music. Stempel is depicted as a clown--likable, even admirable in limited ways, for his humor and bluntness, but finally a marginal and ridiculous figure. Redford doesn't seem to realize what his film has so marvelously illustrated--that there was, ethically, no difference between Stempel's and Van Doren's plights. The difference was a blue-blood illusion. The chief pleasure of Quiz Show is the acting. The thick, Kennedy-style accent which Morrow gives to Goodwin adds just the right touch of stylization to his otherwise finely restrained performance. As Stempel, Turturro goes audaciously over the top, yet remains quite endearing. Regrets about Redford's age aside, Fiennes is very good, giving his aristocratic boyishness a defensive streak. Paymer, as the myopic, Mephistophelean Enright, is brilliantly wormy. Terrific supporting performances are too numerous to mention, but those of Christopher McDonald as host Jack Barry and Mira Sorvino as Goodwin's wife stand out. Allan Rich and Martin Scorsese also deserve nods as the Princes of Darkness to whom Enright dutifully toadies--respectively, the network prez and the president of sponsor Geritol.
Enright's willingness to take the fall paid off--as the movie points out, Twenty-One did not end his career in TV. He returned with The Joker's Wild, a quiz show that ran endlessly in the Seventies. It could afford to be honest, since it served up questions to its contestants that were so easy that even I, watching as a kid, found them embarrassing. I remember one in particular: "In Moby Dick, what color was the whale?" One contestant said, "Blue"; the other ventured, "Gray." This was depressingly more than we needed to know about the cultural knowledge of our citizenry. Maybe Enright should have been left alone.