Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow, Paul Scofield
Director: Robert Redford
Audio: Dolby Surround
Video: Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Hollywood Pictures/Buena Vista
Features: Theatrical Trailer
Length: 133 Minutes
Release Date: September 7, 1999
Charles van Doren seemed to have everything going for him. He was young, charming, handsome, and brilliant. He was a member of one of America's most elite intellectual families. He taught at a prestigious university. He was a novelist. As Yogi Berra might say, he had his whole future ahead of him. Yet, in one of life's great dramatic ironies, he is remembered today for only one thing. He cheated on a television quiz show.
I knew a little about the Twenty-One scandal of the late 1950's…and I must admit, as a subject, it didn't interest me very much. Had I not been such a fan of director Robert Redford, I might not have gone to see Quiz Show. I couldn't see what the big deal was about the discovery that a game show had been rigged. Certainly, it was unethical, but hardly seems like something that should be show stopping news. At least not in our day and age.
The thing is, the point Redford makes so beautifully in his film is that particular moment may have just been the beginning of the end of America's sense of innocence in the 50's. Back then, television seemed like such a great unifier. You could tune in to a show like Twenty-One, and know that most everyone in the country was doing the same thing you were doing. It was an age when a simple game show contestant like van Doren could become a huge celebrity--even making the cover of Time magazine. Who remembers the name of the last person to win five times in a row on Jeopardy today?
It was also a time when a game show like Twenty-One could be entertainment. A show like that wouldn't last a month today: one on one question and answer game play, with no spinning wheels, no flashing monitors, no effects, and not even a buzzer to chime in. People watched because they were impressed with the contestants' knowledge under pressure. "How could they possibly know that?" they would ask. But the answer was something they might not really have wanted to know.
The movie sets up beautifully, with some impeccable use of editing. Champion Herbert Stempel (Turturro) is back on the show to defend his title and add to his winnings. But while he's playing the game, little does he know that decisions are being made that will change his life. Phone calls go back and forth, from the producers to the network president, to the sponsor. It seems the audience's interest in Herbert has peaked.
Enter Charles van Doren (Fiennes), who agrees to take on Stempel on the show. Problem is, all involved want him to win. In a brilliantly executed scene, we watch the producers work on van Doren with all the cunning of the snake in the Garden of Eden. It's not about the money - think of what he could do for education in this country. Millions of kids doing their homework to be as smart as van Doren. Certainly, that's worth a little indiscretion on the side, right?
Before long, van Doren is in. Stempel is out, after agreeing to take a dive on an easy question. But Stempel just can't sit back and watch van Doren bask in the glory that once was his. Before long, he decides to blow the whistle on Twenty-One.
That represents the documentary aspect of Quiz Show--the cold, hard, and historical facts. But Robert Redford spends as much time away from the spot lit events as he does with them. The facts are fascinating enough, but what's even more absorbing is the fact that these are all very real, very ordinary people faced with one kind of moral crisis or another. This scandal was more than gossip. It was painful, and it destroyed many of those who were involved. Ironically, the ones who were the most damaged were the contestants. Sure, they didn't have to go along with it…but as they ask in the movie, if you were offered $25,000 or more just to go on some rigged game show, wouldn't you do it? If examined honestly, that's a question that's maybe a little harder to answer than one might originally think. But the contestants suffered most, because they were in front of the camera. They bore the brunt of the public's hostility. Those behind the camera had their share of troubles, too…but thanks to relative anonymity, they survived much more cleanly.
So in the end, Americans learned for the first time that television was capable and willing to lie to them just to make sponsorship money. It was the end of an era for our innocence as a country, but ironically, it was just the beginning of the power of television in our lives. We became angry at the Charles van Dorens, but we never held television accountable. Instead of toppling with a mighty crash, it grew, and flourished, and no lesson seemed to be learned from the experience, neither for it, nor for us. One could easily argue that we've been paying the price for it ever since.
Robert Redford is a masterful director, and this film is arguably his best work. He shows a great affinity for the art of cinema and its unique capabilities. The editing, for example. Watching the first quiz show scene, as the point of view switches from the contestants, to the audience, to the people at home watching the show, to the powers behind the show watching Stempel and toying with the course of his life…nothing but film can bring together these various aspects in such a fluent and coherent way. Novels can, to a certain degree, but they can't do it in such a way that the rhythm is never interrupted or compromised. Redford also knows how to construct his shots…when to hold longer, when to get off quickly, and when and how to move his cameras. And most importantly, he understands his characters and knows how to work with his performers to achieve dramatic effect through emotional honesty as opposed to intensity. It's no wonder other established directors like Martin Scorcese and Barry Levinson agreed to appear in his movie as actors.
This is a decidedly substandard effort from the Disney studios. As usual, it is not anamorphic, but while many of their DVD titles still rate high for quality, this is not one of them. Images throughout are soft, and not well defined. Often colors blend and bleed into the backgrounds. There is a bit of grain noticeable in several scenes, as well as a general inconsistency to the image throughout. Some scenes look better than others, and some are just awful. One brightly lit exterior actually took on a pink tone across all images on the screen. And, amazingly enough, the layer switch takes place right in the middle of a scene, when there was a complete fade to black less than 30 seconds prior to it.
The soundtrack is a decent surround mix, but not remarkable, given the nature of the film. Dialogue is most important, and it renders well. There's not much in the way of usage of the rear stage.
Only a trailer.
Quiz Show is a film that captures a specific moment in our cultural and moral history, but does so with great understanding and even compassion for those players involved. They may have been like pawns in some big game, but Redford sees them for so much more than that. He clearly realizes, as will the audience, that this was a scandal that had deep repercussions and caused much pain to those involved…and that it remains something that none of the principals have ever been able to walk away from. This is an absorbing, compelling drama, and easily Robert Redford's masterpiece.