If you were asked to name a memorable film from the 1990’s off the top of your head, you probably wouldn't recall the 1994 film Quiz Show. Directed by Robert Redford and starring Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow, John Turturro, and the venerable Paul Scofield, the film centers around the congressional investigation on how the game show Twenty-One was rigged during the 1950’s. Although the film was nominated for Best Picture and actor Paul Scofield was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 1995 Academy Awards, as well as being praised by critics, the film did poorly at the box office and is thus often forgotten. This is a shame because Quiz Show was one of the few times Hollywood portrayed a rather conservative view on the importance of pursuing the truth, as well as the debilitating effects of fame, and how deception is often its prime mover.
A Riveting Moral Tale
The opening scenes of the film offers the viewer a behind-the-scenes look at all the pomp and pageantry that went into producing a live game show in the 1950's. Interspersed within those images, we are also given a frank look at the profit-driven machinations going on while the show is airing. The show's main sponsor, Geritol, is in direct contact with the network producers at NBC studios and they are concerned that the show's ratings are not where they want them to be with the current champion Herbert Stempel (played by Turturro). Despite his misgivings, NBC president Robert Kintner tells the show's producers, Dan Enright and Al Freedman, to give the sponsor what they want and find another champion.
This is the first of many glimpses we are given of the entirely scripted nature of the game show, as shortly afterwards we learn that Stempel’s champion status has always been an arrangement, and one that can be revoked at anytime. Thus Enright tells Stempel that the show’s ratings have “plateaued” and it is time for him to move on. In fact Stempel’s last appearance on the show has already been planned out, and for the sake of “drama” Enright plans to humiliate Stempel by having him lose by failing to answer an absurdly easy question. Meanwhile, both Enright and Freedman have already found their new champion, Charles Van Doren.
Van Doren who is magnificently played by Fiennes, is an aspiring college instructor who yearns to make a name for himself apart from the accomplishments of his Pulitzer-Prize winning father and uncle, and his best-selling novelist mother. Van Doren auditions for the show and is interviewed by Enright and Freedman who offer him a spot on Twenty-One, and they even approach him about being asked questions he already knows the answers to in order to unseat Stempel. Van Dornen balks and doesn't want any part of it.
However, on the night of his appearance against Stempel, he is given a question that he was asked during his interview process. At that moment, Redford marvelously captures what will be the first of many tense pauses throughout the film, as Van Doren decides whether to give the correct answer. His doing so lays the groundwork for the moral drama that Van Doren will struggle with throughout the rest of the film. For by correctly answering the question, he not only unseats Stempel as champion, but becomes an accomplice in an ongoing fraud that he is willing to be a part of in exchange for the literal fame and fortune his champion status brings him.
Meanwhile Stempel, because of bad investments, is in need of money but is rejected by the NBC for another position on television. Feeling betrayed and jealous of the stardom that Van Doren is getting, he seeks revenge by taking his knowledge of the show's crooked workings to a grand jury. However, because of cronyism the inquiry goes nowhere and its findings are legally sealed. Richard “Dick” Goodwin (also marvelously acted by Morrow), an investigator on the House subcommittee for legislative oversight, reads about the sealing in a newspaper article and says that he “smells something” going on and wants to investigate the issue.
Even though his office has jurisdiction over television, Goodwin is warned by his superiors that he would be stepping into the realm of network television and the pharmaceutical industry, something not to be done lightly. Nevertheless, Goodwin accepts the challenge and heads up to New York to see what he can dig up, where after several dead ends he meets Stempel who lays out the entire fraudulent scenario behind the game show Twenty-One (minus his own complicity at first though). Stempel tells Goodwin to forget about talking to the network because they will give him the runaround and instead to speak to Van Doren.
Thus, one day after returning to Columbia University where he teaches after his time at the studio, Van Doren walks through hallways full of admiring college students, only to find Goodwin waiting for him in his office. When Van Doren learns of the reason for his visit, we see another tense pause as Van Doren who was only barely comfortable with what he thought was a minor deception that he could live with, now realizes that his situation has turned into a legal matter that could eventually demand the truth out of him.
From that moment on, the rest of the film follows Goodwin’s unflinching investigative work to ferret out the truth from all of the conflicting narratives from NBC, Stempel, and especial Van Doren. Realizing that Van Doren is not only the key but someone he can relate to, he spends time with Van Doren, even visiting his parent's home for a family gathering and a poker game with Van Doren's friends. In the end, Goodwin finally gets Van Doren to admit the truth in a private “man to man” setting, and while Goodwin is unmoved and a little disappointed in Van Doren’s attempts to justify his actions, he still has enough respect for the man and his family’s name to tell Van Doren to “keep his mouth shut” and not talk to anyone so Goodwin won't have to subpoena him to the congressional hearings. However, Van Doren surprises Goodwin and actually agrees to testify on his own accord in the film’s climatic ending.
A Timeless Tale Right Out of the Gospels
In terms of the film itself, in my opinion Quiz Show is the one of the great unappreciated films of the 90’s. The movie is a joy to watch due to the sheer variety of characters with memorable lines and endearing qualities. Moreover, the dialogue is rich, refined, and intelligently acted out, so much so, that it's hard to watch the film and not yearn for an opportunity to engage in such cultivated conversations in our own lives. For the Christian viewer though, Quiz Show is a must watch because it is one of those rare times when Hollywood actually tells a story that exemplifies and complements a Christian worldview without being preachy or condescending.
The subject of the film is based, in part, on a chapter from the real Richard Goodwin’s 1988 memoir Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties. One of the creative liberties taken in the film was that the investigation of the game show was shown to have taken place during Van Doren’s time on the show. In reality, it took place years later in 1960, and Goodwin included his account of the part he played in the investigation as a way to highlight what he saw as the beginning of the end of post-war American innocence that occurred during the tumultuous 60’s. Redford, who had actually seen Van Doren on the show when he was a young man in New York, wanted to tell a story about disillusionment in the things that provided a sense of stability in our lives. Well, who am I to argue with the director? However, it seems to me that Redford sold himself short if he thinks that’s the only kind of message his film conveys, again, especially to a Christian audience.
For one thing, you will be hard pressed to find a more eloquent and engrossing illustration of some of our Lord's more prominent admonitions such as “for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” or that “the truth will set you free.” The film’s storyline is an accurate depiction of the manufactured and dysfunctional worldview television creates in the minds of its viewers, as well as the compromises that are made by everyone involved in it in order to maintain that false narrative. In essence, we see how bit by bit people give up a portion of their integrity by treating a show’s scripted storyline as real simply so others can be entertained. In the end the truth becomes just another commodity to be pitched and only by coming clean and walking away is one able to relieve themselves of the immense weight that the lies they have woven has on their souls.
Furthermore, the film is worth watching because of its other most prominent “uncredited” best-supporting actor- the Truth. All throughout the film, each of the characters in some way or another interacts with the truth of what is going on behind the scenes, and are trying to deny it, sell it, dodge it, or hope that it will leave them alone. Meanwhile, Goodwin, with the stirring support of his wife Sandra, is a tenacious and incorruptible investigator in pursuit of the truth, who is willing to risk the consequences to his career and reputation in order to reveal it.
At the same time he is also the consummate gentlemen who earnestly tries to keep the momentum of the investigation under control, so that it doesn't become a spectacle where exposure is made for its own sake. He tries to protect Van Doren as much as he can because he knows that the truth of his involvement in the show's deception will ruin his life. Thus, even though we see Van Doren and Goodwin continuously engage in a kind of verbal martial arts as they use their razor-sharp intellects to test and weigh each other’s motives, eventually Van Doren comes to respect Goodwin and to accept his fate in the matter.
So if you need a rainy day or Friday night suggestion, please see this film and even consider making it part of your library. Better yet if you have teenagers or need a movie for a church youth group, you will be hard-pressed to find another film that offers so many starting points for some truly rich and engaging conversations.
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