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Redford's Quiz Show succeeds with moral message


Directed by Robert Redford.

Written by Paul Attanasio.

Starring John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes, David Paymer, and Paul Scofield.

Loews Copley Place.

By Craig K. Chang
Staff Reporter

The quiz show scandals of the 1950s perfectly sum up the tidal wave of power and fame with which show business seduced America. Accusations that the popular show "Twenty-One" was rigged pitted truth against half-truths, propriety against fraud basted in huge sums of money. Robert Redford's Quiz Show takes us through this paradigm of America's burgeoning ethical precariousness, at once pragmatic and hauntingly poignant in its desperation. With candor and breadth, Quiz Show succeeds in defining the culprits in this supposed moral decline while animating their justification of the most ludicrous deception: Cheating on a game show.

Two isolation chambers housed the contestants in the original NBC television show "Twenty-One." In these boxes sealed off from the sounds of the opposing contestant, players wagered points in their gamble of knowledge. Various bits of trivia were the game's immediate currency as players strived for a score of 21. Drama was high in the studios and in homes all across America as new faces dominated the screen in cycles of a few weeks and captured the curiosity of the American people.

In this reenactment, John Turturro plays Herbert Stempel, one contestant who rides the float of glory for a few weeks. His neighbors in Queens soon recognize him as a star, a man who, before "Twenty-One," would have run through the sieve of society's attention as does water through fingers. Many people hail the success of the quiz show as a sign of progress, as fans of the show seem to catch a few moments of intellectual inspiration. For once, the smart man or woman is admired instead of teased.

Even television knows that one success story cannot carry ratings for long; thus, Dan Enwright (David Paymer), an NBC producer at the time, tightens ship: He rigs the show to perpetuate the excitement. Contestants such as Stempel, whose idiosyncrasies begin to wear thin, are nicely asked to take a dive, dethrone themselves, and allow for new potentials to spark the interests of viewers, unknowing fools baited for Geritol's advertising campaign.

Suspicious of this convenient packaging is Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), who intends to undermine television's masquerade as Technicolor truth for the people. He and the most famous contestant of them all, Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), go head to head in a battle of right and wrong. Van Doren, himself of respectable literary heritage, denies his gentle slide into the role of television's puppet spokesman for academia, while Goodwin refuses to let fraud go unpunished.

Quiz Show obviously takes on the enterprise of television as its main focus of criticism. Redford takes us through the contestants' internal ethical battles and portrays how exorbitant sums of money can gently nudge even the most reluctant cheater to pass personal values through the shredder. With the fascinating characters of Van Doren, Stempel, and Goodwin, the movie evolves into an allegory for the lagging debt our conscience accumulates because of easy money.

But ultimately, America knew television and show business was all an act. Quiz Show attempts to badger us with the question: Why did America have such a hard time accepting the game of deception perpetrated by NBC executives? One reply points at charming contestants such as Van Doren, who captured the hearts of "Twenty-One" fans and then shattered the very mask of idealism donned to woo the public. When it transformed quiz shows into soap opera, NBC toyed not only with ratings, but with the emotions of America .

As Dick Goodwin tries to put television on trial during the movie's climactic congressional hearing, he instead puts people on trial, inadvertently antagonizing the public toward the contestants. Redford suggests the quiz show scandals made America decide who really was cheated: the contestants or the fans? This duality the story pieces together beautifully. It was really America's conscience on trial when the quiz show host beckoned for the answer; he not only asked for trivia, he also asked a moral question: Is it okay to deceive the public for the sake of money? Perhaps secretly deceiving remained acceptable. The sound-proof chambers that contestants stood in week after week didn't allow for fair competition, but rather sealed off the players' consciences from public scrutiny.

Truth really stands on a lower pedestal than money talks in Redford's depiction of the quiz show scandals. The shows were a contrivance to begin with: Truth had no place on tacky game shows. America mistook the huge sums of money contestants won for the glory of alleged intellect. Only when the fraud was verified to the people did reaching a score of 21 symbolize consummating with the devil. The fraudulent contestants at once won America's heart by using their ostensible smarts to their advantage and broke her trust under the conditions with which they claimed their loot. All status of martyrdom disappears in light of financial victory; in fact money made fools of the entire country, Quiz Show seems to affirm. As Charles Van Doren's poetic father says to drill through the muck, "Cheating on a quiz show is like plagiarizing a comic book."