Saturday, August 24, 2013

Quiz Show

He’s won $50,000 as a contestant on the TV game show Twenty-One, been immortalized on the cover of Time, and celebrated as the perfect role model for the school children of America. But late one evening while sitting in the kitchen of his Connecticut home, Charles Van Doren tells his father that he doubts he could ever be happier than he was when, as a boy, he’d return from school to find chocolate cake and an ice cold bottle of milk waiting for him. “It seems so simple,” he says, and at this time, his life is anything but simple.

Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s Oscar nominated drama, isn’t simple either. It examines greed, dishonesty, family ties, academia, and the whipping boy of the 20th century, what else but television? The fact that Redford and his screenwriter embellished the facts somewhat and compressed time to bring this true story to the screen has caused some to wonder if they engaged in the same kind of deceit for which they condemn the lead characters.

The quiz shows secretly fed answers to the contestants, and the winners became national celebrities. Herb Stempel (John Turturro) is the reigning champion as Quiz Show opens, but the producers think a new winner is needed to maintain audience interest, preferably someone more handsome, and a gentile to boot.

Enter Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the son of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and professor at Columbia University. Exit Stempel, who agrees to take a dive, but only after he’s been promised a spot on an upcoming panel show. When the promise proves empty, the vindictive Stempel, who has gambled away his winnings and resents Van Doren’s popularity, craves revenge. At the same time, Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a Congressional investigator, is looking into the show’s background, convinced that something dirty is going down.

The script by Paul Attanasio compresses the time frame, turning several years into several months. The role that Goodwin played in the proceedings is also expanded (he wrote the book on which the film is based). These changes were made to strengthen the dramatic impact, but some critics have charged the film with hypocrisy. Hey, this movie is doing the same thing the game shows did: creating drama, contriving suspense, and lying to its audience.

Maybe. But the quiz shows were deliberately hood-winking viewers who were told they were watching reality unfold as it happened. The audience for Quiz Show, the movie, is hopefully sophisticated enough to know they are being manipulated by the filmmakers. A bigger question is whether the deception played on the American people in the 1950s is really significant enough to warrant a 137 minute movie?

I’m tempted to say no, but then Quiz Show deals with greater issues. The ignorance of the American people who gathered around the box in their living rooms is mirrored by Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield), the intellectual, who, despite his Pulitzer Prize for poetry and esteemed place in the world of academia, is foolishly unaware of the impact television is having on both the culture and his son.

“Charlie’s famous,” someone tells the father, “like Elvis Presley.” But the man of letters is not impressed by this shift in the culture.

Charles Van Doren is another matter. A professor of literature, he is nonetheless a man whose identity has been overshadowed by his illustrious father’s reputation. Only by compromising his intellect is he able to come into his own. The price he pays is too steep, however, and Van Doren’s fame only serves to make him feel smaller even as the public elevates him to star status.

What is offensive about Quiz Show is its subtle yet still obvious sanctimonious undercurrents. This is where it all came undone, the filmmakers say. America, that beacon for dreamers, lost its innocence. America, it seems, is always losing its innocence. We’ve been told that America lost its innocence when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and again in Vietnam, and yet again at Watergate. Now, Quiz Show tells us, the cynicism began in the 1950s thanks to a weekly half-hour TV game show.

Sure it did. What, I wonder, was America when the Europeans came and stole the land from the Natives? How innocent was America before the Civil War that brought an end to slavery?

As long as one overlooks these pretensions, Quiz Show is an engrossing film. The era is eerily reproduced (although the Time cover featuring Fiennes as Van Doren looks too contemporary by using a photo instead of an illustration as the news weekly did during the ‘50s) right down to the vacant eyes of the game show host who is more mannequin than human being. The performances, with the exception of Morrow, who affects an annoying and unconvincing Boston accent, are as good as can be. Turturro is gawky, caustic, and intense as Stempel, Fiennes is smooth and superficially secure as Charles Van Doren. Best of all is Paul Scofield as the condescendingly erudite senior Van Doren. Redford’s direction, so flat and undistinguished in The Milagro Beanfield War and A River Runs Through It, finally shows some force.

© 1995 Brian W. Fairbanks


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