1994 Directed by Robert Redford. Starring Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, David Paymer, Paul Scofield, Elizabeth Wilson, Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Sept. 23, 1994
Trying to pinpoint precisely when 20th-century America lost its innocence is a futile pursuit; it presupposes that this nation of contradictions initially had virtue to lose. Nonetheless, Quiz Show posits that the television game show scandal of the late 1950s kindled a disillusionment in America that has culminated in the generally accepted belief today that everyone has a price. Blame it on the television set: Before it invaded our living rooms and breached the public trust, the world -- and all of its corrupting influence -- was kept at a safe distance from middle-class (read: white) America. Evoking the Eisenhower era as few contemporary films have -- its milieu blends beautifully into the narrative, largely due to Michael Ballhaus' gorgeous cinematography -- Quiz Show is a psychological investigation into why Charles Van Doren, a handsome Columbia University instructor from a prominent literary family, made a Faustian bargain to deceive the American public in return for intellectual pop celebrity. Winning over $139,000 on the rigged game show Twenty-One, he made the cover of Time magazine and captured the country's imagination as the Great White Hope reborn. Almost seductively, the film's puzzle slowly pieces together, but never completely. You never fully understand what motivates Van Doren to sacrifice both honor and name, not even in the film's poignant last chapter, when -- humiliated yet relieved -- he publicly confesses his deceit to a congressional committee investigating the erupting scandal. (A birthday party for Van Doren's father, a distinguished professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, comes closest to illuminating this gray area; the subtle rivalry between father and son, made more pronounced by the latter's lightning success as a television personality, suggests why one might risk everything dear to step out of the shadow of the family name.) Aside from the impeccable structure of Paul Attanasio's screenplay, Quiz Show also works on several dichotomous levels. For example, the ugly truth of Twenty-One is elusive until the veneer of illusion is scratched. When federal investigator Morrow (saddled in this film with a fake Kennedy accent and equally fake eyebrows) watches tapes of the game show after learning it may be fixed, the staged drama of winners and losers is all too transparent upon such an informed viewing. Even more intriguing are the class tensions between Jews and Gentiles depicted in the film. Played as a schlemiel by Turturro, Herbert Stempel -- the unemployed defending champion from Queens who attends City College -- is no telegenic match for his challenger, Van Doren: As one character observes, he's “got a face for radio.” Moreover, he's not as witty, urbane, or personable as his Ivy League-educated opponent. Forced to take the fall because the powers-that-be believe the more socially palatable Van Doren will boost the show's ratings, an enraged and jealous Stempel subsequently seeks to avenge himself in a fashion that is at once comical and disturbing. (You could argue that Quiz Show only further perpetuates the stereotypes it implicitly denounces; even if true, it's a necessary license taken in the quest of reconstructing history as a moral fable.) It's no small irony then that although Stempel and Van Doren come from two completely different worlds, they're one and the same in the end. More ambiguously, Morrow's character -- an educated Jew who, despite his Harvard diploma, will never achieve the social ranks of the likes of Van Doren -- becomes Van Doren's friend and protector, doing everything he can to shield America's golden boy from public disgrace. It's an understandably human reaction, given Fiennes' sympathetic performance as Van Doren -- Fiennes has portrayed drastically different men confronting what is colloquially referred to as the “white man's burden.” Although the stellar contributions to this supremely intelligent film are many, there's no mistake that the presence of director Redford dominates the film: Redford, the WASP ideal in The Way We Were; Redford, the tenacious reporter uncovering a scandal in All the President's Men. In this, his most assured film yet, he takes a rather obscure chapter in the American experience and, rightly or wrongly, elevates it to a seminal milestone of our time. Whether this gloss on history is merited makes little difference, really. Like any artistic endeavor that endures, Quiz Show asks difficult questions but offers few, clear answers.