What would you say if you were offered the chance to go on a quiz show on television, become famous and earn ten thousand dollars a week and be called one of the smartest men alive, but they would give you the answers to the questions before hand? Would you accept no questions asked? Would you worry about being caught? Now imagine that you are on one of the first quiz shows on television ever and several million homes tune in every week to see you essentially perform. And then the government found out…
Based on a real story, Charles Van Doren and Herb Stempel among dozens of other people had to make these tough decisions. Now realize this was before fake reality shows and scandal rooting news. This was when television was still an infant, religion held more of a sway than any other influence, and McCarthyism was in the recent past. Appearing to be an upright citizen was more important than actually being one. NBC was a family network but it was also a network that was competing against CBS, PBS, and eventually ABC for the most eyeballs. They needed to make their game shows interesting. What is more interesting than watching your favorite contestant just barely beating their opponents week after week? Apparently nothing… when Charles Van Doren was on Twenty-One, he captured twenty million viewers a week more than any other show on that same time slot. But they were lying. And they got caught.
Robert Redford brought this scandal to a whole new generation when he made this film in 1994. Many of the regulations that every media student has to study and every executive cleverly tries to get around originated from this one quiz show scandal. But regulations did not come right away. In fact nothing came to NBC, the show runner, or Geritol for quite some time, but all of the contestants especially Charles Van Doren and Henry Stempel were shamed for life and viewed as liars. But if I were in their shoes than I would have done the same. Tens of thousands of dollars and instant fame are what most people want. It was NBC and Geritol that should have answered for their bullying and corruptness. And finally with this film they had.
Quiz Show does not show anyone in the NBC offices as nice moral people. Van Doren winning might have meant ten thousand dollars for him, but for NBC it meant millions and for Geritol it meant even more. They were exploitative and manipulative. And nobody in the Oversight committee seemed to care about them. Each one lied to their faces despite ample incriminating evidence and the committee took it easily. This is the problem with politics and massive amounts of money being thrown around. The wrong people get accused and punished while the true transgressors go free. But with Robert Redford (a big liberal ninny) behind the camera, NBC guys are predators while the contestants don’t necessarily become innocent but they are less to blame. John Turturro is great as the cranky overweight Jew who lives in a poor burrough. He wants revenge for ousting him in order for the network to make more money. Nobody but a truly bitter man could have pursued the prosecution of the company for as long as he did. Ralph Fiennes plays the elite and handsome Charles Van Doren, always in the shadow of his father and uncle. He didn’t need the money so much as he needed to be recognized as just as important as his father. For a short while he was more important than his father, but it became for the wrong reasons.
Although this film has its problems, the film is interesting in the ideas that are brought to the table. Calling out the true transgressors, pointing at the need for more regulation instead of less and showing the psychological breakdown of various characters in the film are all unique to this film and what makes this film the only good film in his filmography. I mean come on this guy also tried to make a film about horse whisperers. You can’t get any more lame than that.