“Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.”
There’s a certain charm when a movie depicts recent history. Sure, accurate recreations of what historians assume the world was like hundreds of years ago are impressive. But when something from recent decades is the focus of a story, you have the advantage of people who lived through it being able to put their own spin and hindsight on it. Robert Redford, director of Quiz Show, was in college when the story his movie tells went down. And that personal experience, memory and fondness is evident in every frame.
It’s the late 50s and American TV audiences can’t get enough of quiz shows. One of the most popular, 21, is currently home to long running champ, Herb Stemple (John Turturro). A Jew with a chip on his shoulder after a life of having his intelligence thrown in his face, Stemple is enjoying his time in the limelight and everything that comes with it. But 21’s sponsor (played by Martin Scorsese in a rare acting role) decides ratings and product sales would benefit from a champ a little more on the gentile side. So show producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) recruit handsome intellectual and college professor, Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes).
Not content to take their chances, Enright and Freedman convince Stemple to take a dive. They also take extra precautions by loading Van Doren with questions he has already answered correctly in interviews. Now America finally has, “a clean-cut intellectual on this program, not a freak with a sponge memory.”
Promised an ongoing TV career that never eventuates, a bitter Stemple takes his story of show fixing to a grand jury where he is almost immediately dismissed as a disgruntled, sore loser. But the findings aren’t swept quite far enough under the rug to escape the notice of up and coming congressional attorney, Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow, AKA Dr Joel Fleischman from Northern Exposure). Keen to make a name for himself, Goodwin decides to “go after television”. All the while, Van Doren chalks up more and more wins and more and more prize money on 21, becoming a beloved national celebrity along the way. All thanks to the pre-provided answers
I really liked Quiz Show. It’s a great, true story that naturally lends itself to good drama and stays just far enough away from tropes and clichés to keep you on your toes. It’s also packed with great performances, especially Turturro. He makes Herb Stemple relatable, tragic, infuriated, egotistical and vulnerable all at the same time. But what I liked most about Quiz Show, was its lack of a clear hero.
Every single character is fuelled by bad intentions. Stemple doesn’t want to expose the quiz show because it did something wrong. He wants to expose the quiz show because it made him look a fool when he had to pretend to not remember which movie won the Best Picture Oscar in 1952. And Dick Goodwin doesn’t take the case because he thinks the trust of the American people has been betrayed, he takes the case because he thinks it will give him something else to brag about besides being top of his class at Harvard
Quiz Show looks amazing, and to my 21st century eyes, the 50s period setting looks more than authentic, but the look is the movies only real downfall. It’s so meticulously story boarded, directed and micro managed in every single way, that I never for one second forgot I was watching a movie. Obviously choreographing shots, blocking actor’s movements and story boarding sequences is common to almost every movie ever made, especially big budget studio movies. But when done well, you don’t notice it.
With Quiz Show, there were so many beautiful shots that pulled me out of the movie, because all I could see were the lengths director Robert Redford framing a beautiful shot. But as far as a movie’s shortcomings go, being too well shot, or too beautiful to look at, is a pretty minor complaint.