Tuesday, November 8, 2016
Quiz Show (Reviewed by Dad)
The 1994 historic drama Quiz Show provided a peek into the early world of television and television game shows which gave contestants the chance to win thousands of dollars by showing off their smarts, demonstrating that anything was possible for “average American Joes” who knew their stuff.
The problem was that a number of winners in these programs didn’t need to know their stuff since many of those early TV quiz shows were fixed, feeding answers to contestants television viewers liked, while asking those the public had bored with to throw the match to the next up-and-coming personality.
Such was the fate of Herb Stemple (played by John Turtorro), a working class schlemiel whose braininess won him thousands before his winning streak on the game show 21 came to an end at the hands of the erudite Columbia professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes).
The film dramatizes actual events, including the exposure of the quiz show scandals which involved sponsors, producers and contestants getting hauled in to testify before Congress. The pivot point of the story is congressional investigator Dick Goodwin, played by Rob Morrow (mostly known for his television work on Northern Exposure and Numb3rs) who befriends Van Doren, even as he investigates him at the behest of Stemple (who has let his loss fester into loathing of the WASPy academic who defeated him).
The people behind the film might have thought they were creating a political allegory to help us understand how the media manipulate the public, even as they feed us the images and stories we most desire (such as rags-to-riches tales which let us stare as tens of thousands of dollars exchange hands). By the end of the film, however, it was not a political message that resonated but a human one.
Scenes featuring Goodwin and Van Doren, for example, are charged with tension as the young Jewish lawyer gets drawn into (and becomes infatuated with) his target’s family – Charles being the son of the famous scholar, poet and fellow Columbia professor Mark Van Doren (played brilliantly by Paul Scofield). But these scenes feature just a fraction of the sparks generated when the younger Van Doren must confess his success, and later his dishonesty, to his father.
Generally, it is the older actors who dominate the screen – even in bit parts. Paul Scofield is definitely the best thing in the picture. But veteran character actor Allan Rich (playing Robert Kintnet – the head of the network during the quiz show scandals) was only slightly less brilliant than Scofield or legendary director Martin Scorsese in one of his few acting roles (as the cynical head of Geritol, sponsor of the crooked game show).
Not all is perfect with the younger cast members, however. In fact, it was hard to concentrate on Murrow’s performance, give how much of his energy he was putting into affecting a Brookline (MA) accent. Even Fiennes, who usually inhabits his roles un-self-consciously, seems to struggle with the ticks and language required to portray a scion of America’s intellectual aristocracy.
There is also a problem with the film’s central premise that the corruption of television quiz shows says something big and important (other than the fact that they are as fake as professional wrestling). Which is why the movie’s best moments are small and intimate, requiring us to ask ourselves how we would respond if a big check was offered to us if we would simply make a distinction between entertainment and lies.
Ben replies: Another one where I agree with you. Quiz Show is an oddity that shows that a film can be very flawed, while still being great for what it does right. This movie centers around three performances, two of which range from forgettable to not just not as good as they could have been, and I could name several other problems. However, so much of this film is unforgettable as an entertaining look into the world of entertainment. The acting from the supporting cast and a quick-witted screenplay alone make the film worth watching. It’s also one of the most clean movies that we’ve reviewed, with a PG rating (so nothing to watch out for but a slow second act and a couple of so-so performances).