Can you be sure of where you stand
And how you’ll keep your footing when
A bit of guile gets out of hand,
And lies are needed once again?
They say the truth can set you free,
But when has someone crossed the line
Of giving up on honesty
Because to err is not divine?
When baby steps grow up too fast
And liars find them ill-advised,
They see the slope that cannot last
Began when first they compromised.
Rating: PG-13 (solely for language)
For a year like 1994 that had acclaimed films like Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, and Pulp Fiction, it’s not surprising that a good but lesser film would be swept under the rug, so to speak. With so many good films that year, Quiz Show remained an afterthought, both during the awards season and for my own to-watch list, even if it was directed by Robert Redford. This really is a shame because this is a potent exploration of intellectual and personal honesty and might have performed much better in a less competitive year (1996 perhaps).
Quiz Show is based on the memoir of Richard Goodwin, an investigator for the Legislative Oversight Committee of the House of Representatives back in the 1950s. Rob Morrow plays Goodwin in the film, a lawyer who notices some peculiarities on a popular quiz show called Twenty One and follows a hunch to investigate. Apparent genius and champion Herb Stempel (John Turturro) is told to take a dive by the show’s producers (David Paymer and Hank Azaria) and loses on an easy question to allow the advent of Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). As likable Van Doren’s star rises, Stempel is ignored as he alleges corruption on the supposedly upstanding quiz show. As the investigation progresses, ethics are stretched, and new information comes to light that blurs the lines of right and wrong.
Thanks to excellent casting, Turturro and Fiennes really steal the show here. The missing teeth and, shall we say, homely appearance of the former ideally casts him as the ugly step-contestant, while the verbal grace and perfect hair of the latter offer a striking contrast to his predecessor. It leaves no doubt as to the reasoning of the showrunners. To them, Stempel should be the pitiful reject who can’t cope with losing, and Van Doren should be the shining example of virtue and erudition. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Stempel might have become the browbeaten underdog and Van Doren the haughty record holder. Yet while these characterizations are somewhat true, there are many more nuances and complex motivations behind them.
Van Doren, in particular, is depicted as a right decent chap, one who values honesty and intelligence but edges down a slippery slope. Fame can be quite the drug. Why else do so many people do such stupid stunts and post them on the internet? Why else would a successful college professor risk his career for a game show? One might take comfort in the “no one will ever know” mentality, but Van Doren seemed from the start as someone to respond with the “I would know” answer and refuse. Yet the web is woven. He revels in his newfound popularity but buckles under the weight of his own complicity, all while remaining entirely likable, both to us and to Mr. Goodwin. Though liberties are said to have been taken with the details, the ethical conflict rings true for this true story. After all, game shows are still watched as a matter of trust that they aren’t rigged. (I remember when Ken Jennings lost shockingly to a one-night wonder on Jeopardy! several years back. He claims that he simply didn’t know the final question, but I still have my doubts, though I tend to think he might have gotten tired of it all and “taken a dive” on his own without any behind-the-scenes intervention.)
Redford paints the moral dilemmas with a steady hand and, like some statements during the Congressional hearings near the end, offers sympathy when proper and reproof when needed. Quiz Show’s strength is that it is far from black and white. Like other films such as The Prestige or Rashomon, there is no clear-cut good guy to root for, just many victims and varying levels of blame. In the end, justice may be said to be done, but not perfectly. Corporate string-pulling proves too persuasive, but Quiz Show isn’t just about an official scandal or the innate duplicity of show business. It’s about honesty, whether tested, lost, or regained.
Best line: (Herb Stempel, offering rugalach to Goodwin) “Come on, they’re a Jewish delicacy. Before Toby eats it.” (Toby Stempel, his wife) “I’m retaining water, for your information.” (Herb) “You and the Grand Coulee Dam.”
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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