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Quiz ShowUSA 1994
Directed by Robert Redford
Running time 133 minutes
This true life story from the early days of television impresses with its top drawer craftsmanship but, perhaps just for that reason, does not attain the upper echelon of films with dramatic heft.
It’s 1958 and television quiz show Twenty-One is a hit. The reigning champ is the snaggled-toothed, bespectacled and awkward Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) but when the show’s sponsor (Martin Scorsese) demands someone more appealing, the producers replace him with the handsome and charming Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). Van Doren becomes a national celebrity but Stempel tries to expose the behind-the-scenes rigging. His words fall on barren ground until ambitious Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) gets interested and a national scandal erupts.
From the script by Paul Attanasio which was based on Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties by Richard N. Goodwin to Redford’s smooth direction, from the superb production design to the performances by Fiennes and Turturro and supporting cast, Quiz Show ticks all the boxes. Therein lies the problem – it’s all a little too neatly boxed. Probably the biggest weakness is in the characterisation of Charles Van Doren, a highly intelligent man in the shadow of a brilliant father (Paul Scofield) who gets seduced by the promise of…. Well, that’s the problem, we don’t really know what motivated him to get involved and perpetuate an egregious lie completely out of keeping with his upbringing.
Fiennes' Van Doren slips into the slough of popular entertainment with surprising ease and seems to have no problem living the lie. He is portrayed as the victim of sorts but then seems to be quite ruthless in his deceptions. We can see the various elements of conflict and stress there but they don’t quite come together forcefully enough to create a convincing characterisation. John Turturro on the other hand gives a stand-out performance as Herbie Stempel. The rest of the cast is also strong including Scofield and Mira Sorvino in her first mainstream film.
Perhaps also because quiz shows don’t have the kudos that they once had Redford’s film is more interesting as a portrait of a bygone era than exciting as a story of personal folly but in that he has still achieved quite a lot.