It is 1958 and the TV quiz Twenty One can make stars of is winners. That is until it is exposed as being rigged, its contestents fall from grace and corruption and backstabbing pervades.
Many great true-life stories begin as trivia. In 1958, TV quizzes were so popular in America that contestants on a winning streak became celebrities. Charles Van Doren, a big winner on arch general knowledge tester Twenty-One, rose from an ill-paid teaching job to a potent-salaried spot as NBC's cultural commentator. Then out of the woodwork crawls Herbert Stempel, a less clean-cut former Twenty-One winner, alleging that contestants were given questions and answers in advance of the programme.
The Ivy League Van Doren finally owned up to the sham before a Congressional Oversight Committee, causing his own downfall and a minor purge in the industry that, of course, did not extend to the big-wigs and sponsors who, in truth, were the ones who ordered Twenty-One be rigged to swell those sacred ratings.
Quiz Show is undoubtedly Robert Redford's finest turn calling the shots to date. Having found this curious footnote to cultural history, and working from a first class script by Paul Attanasio, he has wrought a film that is weighty without being ponderous, full of acutely observed detail about the 50s and media issues that are still relevant, and hinges on a set of fascinating and marvellously played characters.
Stempel (Turturro) is a neurotic know-it-all whose abrasive personality and Jewish looks ("there's a face for radio") are far less telegenic than his smooth, handsome, modest successor. Van Doren (Fiennes), finely bred from a distinguished family led by a kindly overbearing poet patriarch (Paul Scofield), has his own problems. Redford cannily shows the need for recognition that nudges him into a Faustian bargain for wealth and fame, and the stirrings of conscience that prompt him eventually to collaborate, for far purer motives than the whining Stempel, with his own crucifixion.
As he did with Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It, Redford builds a film around a role he might himself have played in his young sex symbol days if studios had let him flex his acting muscles. Fiennes, following his Schindler's List turn, is a rare gorgeous lead who can compete with a great character actor like Turturro, generating an intoxicating contrast between their characters and acting styles.
The middle ground is provided by Dick Goodwin (Morrow), a lawyer with the Oversight Committee who carries on the investigation in hope of clearing out the crookedness of a whole industry only to see the hearings deteriorate into another witch hunt for minor sinners that serve to cover up the misdeeds of bosses played in marvellously slimy cameos by Allan Rich, as the NBC president, and Martin Scorsese as a Machiavellian sponsor. Barry Levinson, who might once have made the film, pops up in a deliciously sly moment as TV presenter Dave Garroway, while Christopher McDonald contributes a shark-like grin as Jack Berry, the host of Twenty-One, and David Paymer and Hank Azaria ooze half-ashamed smarm as the producers-cum-scam merchants.
Starting with something as preposterous as a rigged gameshow, Quiz Show tackles big American themes: the cult of celebrity, the demonic influence of big business, the hidden price of fame, the conflict between education and entertainment, the mushrooming power of the media and the simple lure of easy money. Rich and stimulating, this is also a film with character and real heart, distinguished by award-worthy performances, stunningly subtle direction and a streak of barbed wit.
Released: 08 April 1999
Acutely observed, beautifully performed, lovingly directed media morality tale that resonates far beyond its 1950s setting.
Reviewed by Kim Newman