The Price Isn't Right
Whilst the true story which Robert Redford's "Quiz Show" is based upon happened long before I was born, the movie itself is a fascinating, masterfully crafted affair which almost plays in a similar style to "The Untouchables". You have an investigator determined on bringing down a corrupt TV show and the producers culminating in a court case which builds to a crescendo of intensity as the whole quiz show scandal comes out into the open. It's an amazing movie both educational and entertaining in equal manner but more importantly captivating, sucking you in to every second, every nostalgic set, and every moment of revelation till it delivers the ending which is almost as shocking as the truth.
It's 1958 and Herbie Stempel (John Turturro - The Color of Money) is the rags to riches story, the average guy from Queens whose surprising knowledge makes him a hit with the public as he keeps on winning on the TV show "Twenty One". That is until he is ordered by producer Dan Enright (David Paymer - City Slickers) to get a simple question wrong so he can be replaced by Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes - The Hurt Locker), a more photogenic face for TV with a family of acclaimed academics. Unhappy about being forced to take a fall, Stempel kicks up a storm as he professes that the show is rigged causing enthusiastic investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow - The Bucket List) to start digging around in to whether or not the public's favourite quiz show "Twenty One" is in fact a sham.
On face value "Quiz Show" plays like a dramatization of the real event's which lead to the revelations that some of the popular quiz shows from the 50s were not as honest as the audiences thought. It delivers that aspect of public fascination with those who showed off their talents on these shows, answering the most extraordinary of question where they trawl the depths of their brains to discover the answers. Whilst it also delves into the murky way these shows operated, the producers manipulated by the owner of the network who in turn was manipulated by the sponsors Geritol. It's a fascinating look at 50s television delivering a remarkable story which even if it hadn't been based on the true story would have been stunning anyway.
Plus "Quiz Show" highlights the change in public perception, back then there was an innocence that they believed everything they watched cheering on those who were smart and clever. Yet now times have changed the public's perception of TV has changed in the knowledge that not everything is as innocent as once thought. And why quiz shows have almost disappeared, replaced by games shows where luck is rewarded more than intellect.
But Robert Redford makes "Quiz Show" more he throws up some interesting points and questions. The revelation that on these shows a Jew was always followed by a more successful gentile is fascinating and is highlighted by the fact that Van Doren himself was then lauded with magazine covers and TV shows following on from the underdog Jew Herb Stempel. It also throws up the question of why investigator Dick Goodwin was so keen to spare Charles Van Doren from public humiliation when the case came to trial. Was it that he himself idolized the Van Doran family, respected them for their life and intellect or was it some sort of old boy loyalty. Plus there is the element of Herbie Stempel who was more interested in bringing down Van Doren himself than highlighting the corrupt system in these quiz shows, why? Why did he have an almost vendetta towards Charles who himself was almost as much of a patsy as Stempel was in the corrupt quiz show.
Whilst Redford does a marvellous job of not only creating an authenticity to the production in his recreation of the era but also by spinning a captivating storyline he is helped by some solid performances. John Turturro as Herbie Stempel delivers a wonderful performance, he creates for a better word an annoying schmuck, the guy who may have a mind for facts but is so whiney, annoying and who believes his own hype that it's hard to sympathise with him, despite having been forced to take a fall. But it's right that you don't fully sympathise with him because whilst his fall may not be completely fair he himself was a conspirator. It's clever because it stops him from being falsely a good guy.
Alongside Turturro is Ralph Fiennes who delivers an equally great character the brilliant mind and perfect face for TV in Charles Van Doren. There's a great nervousness to Fiennes's characterisation who knows that what he is doing is wrong, even disgraceful having come from a much respected academic family but yet turned by the lure of easy money. The almost battle he has with his conscience as to whether to go along with the deceit is a masterful demonstration of restrained acting, ignoring going obviously over the top in search of delivering that inner turmoil.
But despite all this praise there is a side to "Quiz Show" which stops it from being perfect and that is the almost simplicity of the court case. It builds up to a wonderful crescendo but then something is missing causing it to stall before it really delivers that last major punch of revelation. Even the ending credits which inform us of what happened to all those involved in this messy corruption lacks something despite revealing how fickle the entertainment system is.
What this all boils down to is that "Quiz Show" is a stunning movie, almost perfect except that it falters just when you want something bigger. Even so the storyline, the performances, the insight into the era as well as that nostalgic feel is all brilliant drawing you into this story of corruption and duplicity. Even if "Quiz Show" wasn't based on a true story it is so compelling, so well crafted that you would believe it was.