Quiz Show

1994, Movie, PG-13, 132 mins


A meditation on the loss of moral character in America, director Robert Redford's recounting of the 1950's quiz show scandals has much to recommend it, but fails to answer the $64,000 question--"so what?"

New York, 1957. Herb Stempel (John Turturro) is the reigning champion on "Twenty-One," one of the big-money quiz shows drawing huge new audiences to the fledgling medium of television. Stempel is seemingly unbeatable, but network and sponsor think he's a "schmuck with a face for radio," and they want him off the show. Enter Columbia professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a handsome WASP with an impeccable intellectual pedigree. "Twenty-One" producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) convinces Van Doren to participate in a fraudulent scheme: in order to guarantee his continuing appearance on the show, he's supplied with the answers in advance.

Ironically, the scandal that threatened to bring down television served as the impetus for the three networks to take monopolistic control over the entire industry, from production to broadcast, ending TV's "Golden Age" and ushering in the so-called "Vast Wasteland" era of the 60s. QUIZ SHOW's success is likewise defined by its unintended consequences. It purports to reveal the genesis of a morally ambiguous culture that accepts, and even expects, deception. Assuming that's true, however, the contemporary mass audience, raised on televisual values and inured to fraudulence, will presumably shrug off Redford's charges with bemused apathy.

Formally, QUIZ SHOW deserves a great deal of praise. It's a blessedly old-fashioned, well-made and well-acted narrative; the scenes involving the Van Doren and Stempel families, and the show's producers, stand out, while Rob Morrow (as crusading attorney Richard Goodwin) makes an unnecessary meal out of his character's Boston accent. leave a comment

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