Quiz Show (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"Something changed with this [quiz show scandal]. It really marked the end of a period of innocence in our social history. No longer did people believe that what you saw on television was the truth... It may sound peculiar to us today that a quiz show scandal could have provoked such public outrage, but it was really the first in a series of disillusionments that violated our sense of trust."
- Robert Redford, producer/director Quiz Show

1958. Television quiz shows like "Twenty-One" are ratings hits. Americans tune in every week to root for the charming, erudite Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) in his quest to vanquish new challengers. Following his defeat of the previous champion, Herbie Stempel (John Turturro), Van Doren, the son of the well-known poet Mark Van Doren (Paul Schofield), has become a national celebrity, sending sales of Geritol, the sponsor of "Twenty-One", through the roof. But all is not well behind the scenes. Van Doren's victories are cheats, the results of pre-supplied answers guaranteed to keep him on the air. When a bitter Stempel decides to go public, and Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) listens to him, a national scandal erupts.

The clearest message of Quiz Show is a cynical truth: the entertainment industry is a business where ethics are meaningless when it comes to winning a ratings war. This is hardly a revelation, of course. No American in 1994 is naive enough to blindly accept anything they see on television. "Twenty-One", however, is where that disillusionment started.

There's a secondary theme dealing with the shortness of the public's memory. Less than twenty years following his "Twenty-One" disgrace, producer Dan Enright returned to the game show business with another hit. Today, programs like Jeopardy are big draws, and the lure of a repeat champion is as strong as ever.

Following events such as the quiz show revelations, Vietnam, and Watergate, the nation's perceptions have changed. We have grown up, becoming a jaded society given to skepticism about everything from TV programs to the word of presidents. In 1958, we trusted. In 1994, we expect the worst, and wait like vampires to suck the blood of fallen icons when those expectations are fulfilled.

One of the reasons that Quiz Show is so extraordinary is because it spins a story as compelling on the personal level as on the national one. Ralph Fiennes' Charles Van Doren is a fascinating individual, equally seduced and repelled by greed. Desperate to escape his father's shadow, he wallows in public adulation until it begins to stink from his own hypocrisy.

Consecutive films have now presented superb performances by Fiennes. Van Doren is nothing like Schindler's List's Amon Goeth, but, taken together, both roles display the actor's ability and versatility. If he continues to choose his parts carefully, Fiennes will soon be a major motion picture draw.

On the other side of the father/son conflict is Paul Scofield's character. Masterfully rendered, Mark Van Doren is far more than the usual stern, disapproving patriarch. He is a man with keen insight and sensitivity who looks sadly upon the track of his son's ambitions.

John Turturro is exceptional as the uncharismatic Herbie Stempel, a man so petty and dislikable that it's impossible to sympathize with him even when he's presented as a victim. Rob Morrow is good enough not to be completely overshadowed by his co-stars, although his forced accent could have been toned down. Mira Sorvino, in her first mainstream film after appearances in several independents, provides a spark as Goodwin's wife.

Crisply directed by Redford from a thought-provoking script by Paul Attanasio, and featuring a slew of strong performances (including appearances by Barry Levinson and Martin Scorsese), Quiz Show is the first giant of the Fall 1994 movie schedule. It is deserving of the pre- release hype.

Towards the end of the movie, David Paymer's Dan Enright comments that the sham of "Twenty- One" created a situation in which nobody lost -- not the sponsor, NBC, the public, or the contestants. Viewers of Quiz Show, however, are likely to form the opposite impression -- that, in the end, there were no winners.

Quiz Show (United States, 1994)

Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1994
Run Time: 2:13
U.S. Release Date: 1994-09-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: