06 June 2010

Review: "Quiz Show"

Those who me know me know that I love Jeopardy! If there was ever a film that was directly marketed at my obsession, it would be Quiz Show, a 1994 film directed by Robert Redford. I have such an uncanny love for trivia that I always want to play Trivial Pursuit and am a frequent visit to the website Sporcle. Quiz Show is the fourth film directed by Redford, whose first film, Ordinary People in 1980, won him the Academy Award for Best Director (as well as capturing Best Picture). He was nominated again in 1992 for A River Runs Through It and again in 1994 for Quiz Show. In 1994, the year I turned eleven, I was just beginning to pay attention to the film industry. I remember wanting to see Pulp Fiction so badly and being mesmerized by Uma Thurman -- which is still true today! Sixteen years later can we still say that Forrest Gump is a better film than Pulp Fiction and Quiz Show? The film, based on true events, chronicles the scandal on the 1950s quiz show Twenty One. I believe that Hollywood is sometimes too eager to put true stories on film, but most of my anger stems from my displeasure of the true stories that only exist to make audiences cry. Quiz Show is definitely not that kind of film. Roger Ebert, in his review, remarked that the screenplay is ruthless and I believe that Robert Redford has created a film that depicts even the most sympathetic characters as being villainous.

In 1957 Americans are drawn to their televisions to watch the newest episodes of Twenty One, a quiz show that pits two contestants against each other to answer trivia questions and betting points in order to win. Herbert Stempel (John Turturro), a former soldier and common American, is the reigning champion. Soon the show's sponsor, Geritol, grows tired of Herb and the show's producers, Dan Enright (Dan Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), must find a new champion. Enright and Freeman are ecstatic when Charles van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) comes to NBC wanting to appear on Tic-Tac-Dough. Enright asks Stempel to purposely lose to Van Doren, a Columbia University professor and son of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield), who they believe is more sophisticated and will sell better than Herbert Stempel. Charles Van Doren becomes a national celebrity and appears on televisions shows and magazine covers and eventually the producers start feeding him answers. A scandal erupts after Stempel testifies before a Grand Jury and
Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a Congressional lawyer for the House Committee for Legislative Oversight from Washington D.C., comes to New York to to look into quiz show corruption. Goodwin has a difficult task at hand, he must prove that Twenty One willingly provided contestants with answers and that Geritol played a role in choosing when champions lost. Quiz Show also stars Mira Sorvino as Dick Goodwin's wife Sandra, Christopher McDonald as Jack Barry, the host of Twenty One, and Martin Scorsese as the president of Geritol.

At its core Quiz Show is a political film about the quiz show scandals in the 1950s. It escapes the trap of being a boring political film because of its tremendous acting. At first Charles Van Doren is presented as the ethical hero of the film, unwilling to cheat and wanting to remain honest for the sake of the American people. As his greed for money and fame grow it is his father, Mark Van Doren, who emerges as our sympathetic hero. Paul Scofield, a talented actor who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1966 for A Man For All Seasons. He is a gifted actor who shines brightest amongst the more famous names in the film and he was deservedly nominated for Best Supporting Actor. I have often wondered if producers have a hand in affecting the outcome of a game show. There are times when I feel a particular champion on Jeopardy! is unable to use his signal device for an extended period and ends up losing. But, on the other hand, there are also times when champions are so devoid of personality. Quiz Show is a fantastic film that earns your focus with an intelligent story and pacing that, despite its political and historical relevance, never seems overly focused on the details and allows the audience to make their own judgments.

My rating: 4 stars out of 4.

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