Quiz Show (1994)

Directed by Robert Redford

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Robert Redford’s Quiz Show is an exhilarating drama about the fraud involved in a 1950s reality television program that pits two contestants against each other, answering trivia questions for a cash prize.  Like with so many current reality tv programs, “reality” is actually quite constructed, and the film details the investigation into the program, initiated by a disgruntled former contestant.

That contestant is Herb Stempel (John Turturro), and he enjoys the recognition as the current champion on the show.  When the network determines that the ratings have plateaued with Herb as the champion, they hunt for a new champion, someone to defeat Herb and inject a new narrative into the veins of an eager audience at home.  They find that person in Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the handsome son of a wealthy, famous Van Doren (Paul Scofield).

The show producers convince Herb to take a dive on the next show and lose to Van Doren, which he does, out of some combination of fear and need for the money the producers promise him should he purposefully lose.  Then Van Doren is crowned championed and proceeds to go on a winning streak that lasts a few months, becoming famous all across the country and, it seems, finally making his father proud.

In the middle of these two men is Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a bored young Congressional lawyer looking to make a name for himself.  Like seemingly everyone else in America he is intrigued by the quiz show, and when he sees a small article briefly mentioning a probe into allegations against the show, he decides to look further.  This will introduce him to Herb and soon bring him close to Van Doren.

I think this film works as well as it does because of these three central protagonists.  In another telling of this story these could easily be one dimensional characters who fulfill the obligations of the plot, but Herb, Van Doren and Dick are much more complex and conflicted.

Herb could be little more than a self-righteous genius, Van Doren the dimwitted but affable rich kid and Dick the idealist, hungry young lawyer.  But Herb isn’t as smart as he first seems, particularly as he loses all his winnings to a bookie, Van Doren is more empathetic and conflicted than we realize, and Dick is hungry, yes, but a bit misguided.

As Dick refuses to back down, he brings an investigation against the show and the heads of the network.  His aim is to bring down “tv” but he quickly learns that the people who will be consumed by the investigation are those who are replaceable, namely Van Doren.  By this point in time Herb will have dug his own grave, having implicated himself in the same crimes he accuses others of committing just so he can get it on record.  It’s pride which seems to be his undoing, and despite his insistence that Van Doren is a cheat, like him, by the end he will lose faith in his crusade when he realizes Van Doren isn’t the enemy here.

So who is the enemy?  Well it’s the system, and part of what makes this film so great is that despite the greed and willingness to lie on the part of the people who can afford to do so, their lie isn’t necessarily an evil one.  As some will point out, Van Doren’s rise to fame, while helping boost sales of the show’s advertiser, also celebrates intelligence.  He’s a handsome face to help sell kids on the power of learning, and isn’t that a good thing?

I really, really enjoyed Quiz Show because it’s a well-written story with three protagonists who all have clear motivations, contradictions and inspire some degree of empathy.  They feel fully fleshed out, and their respective goals of course come into perfect conflict, creating a storm out of which you’re not sure how it will end or how you even want it to end.

Having not known the story ahead of time, there were a number of inflection points at which it seemed to me the story could genuinely go several different directions.  When Herb is told to take a dive, for example, it seemed to me that he would refuse to do so, leading to a man vs. network conflict like you see at the end of Network (1976).  Instead he plays their game and takes a knee.

Then you have Van Doren’s rise, but rather than skyrocketing, he too will lose, leaving it up to us to wonder whether he purposefully took a knee or was instructed to do so by the network.  And even once that happens there’s still a lot of ground to cover.

Some might react against the general showiness of the film, but I’m all about it.  It’s a movie with performers in mind, a movie that gives several characters their moment to shine and, it seems, to make their play for an Oscar.  Redford’s first film, 1980’s Ordinary People featured many such moments for its ensemble cast, and once again I ate that up too.

Up Next: Big Fish (2003), Everybody Knows (2018), Paddleton (2019)

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