Double Jeopardy

On every level, Quiz Show is astonishing. It's more than just a satisfying epic melodrama about the television scandals that rocked the broadcast industry almost 40 years ago; it's the best American movie of 1994, and the most eloquent examination of the country's contradictory sense of ethics since The Godfather.

The screenplay, by Paul Attanasio (one of the creators of TV's Homicide), is drum-tight, packed with surprising plot twists, intricately shaded characterizations, and some of the finest hard-boiled, movie-movie dialogue heard on American screens since Ben Hecht went to that great story meeting in the sky. The performances (by a large and varied cast that includes John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Mira Sorvino, Ralph Fiennes, Johann Carlo, and David Paymer) are uniformly superb. And Robert Redford's direction is a precision-tooled dream, leaping nimbly from scene to scene and idea to idea with a hurtling energy that drives the narrative relentlessly and pleasurably forward.

To find a film that could equal it in sheer unity of artistic vision, you'd probably have to go back to the very best American pictures of the 1970s -- movies that chronicled complex stories with effortless professionalism, and in the process told us something about who we are as a nation, where we came from, and where we might be headed.

All films begin where they begin for a reason. And when a film is as intricately plotted and tightly focused as Quiz Show, the opening frames are crucial.

Fade in to an automotive show room. It's 1957: Ike is serving his second term, rock and roll is still young, and the first Soviet sputnik has just gone into orbit. Ambitious young congressional investigator Richard Goodwin (Morrow) is being pitched a new car. Goodwin can't really afford the car. As the salesman goes into his spiel, Goodwin counters it by noting that many of the vehicle's much-vaunted features aren't that important: the radio, the tail fins, the plush seats made of half-pigskin, half-calfskin.

The salesman tells Goodwin he's missing the point. The sleek lines, the kicky frills, the look, the attitude of the car are as important as whether it gets you where you need to go. When you buy this car, you're buying an image. When you slide behind the wheel, you become the man you'd like to be. Who says money can't buy happiness?

Cut to an NBC television studio in Manhattan, where the popular question-and-answer game show Twenty-One is being broadcast live. The reigning champion, Herbert Stempel (Turturro) -- a Jewish ex-GI and college graduate -- has just dispatched another opponent by answering a slew of questions about Paul Revere's ride.

A blue-collar nerd who always dreamed education would lift him away from his roots, Stempel is living a dream: fat paychecks, national press attention, credit for making schoolchildren idolize intellectuals, free merchandise, swanky dinners with network brass. Later that night, when Stempel returns to his working-class neighborhood in Queens, his neighbors wave hello to him as he climbs from the NBC limo and strides gawkily to his home and greets his devoted wife, Toby (Carlo). Life is good.

But not for long. Unbeknownst to Stempel, the president of the program's sponsor, Geritol (a menacing turn by filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who's like a barracuda in a suit), called the producers to tell them that he's bored seeing Stempel win every time. He's tired of looking at Stempel, with his kinky hair and ungainly glasses and whiny voice, and he thinks viewers are, too. "I guess the sponsor wants a guy on Twenty-One who looks like he could get a table at 21," quips one wit in the booth.

The guy they'd like is Charles Van Doren (the amazing Fiennes), a junior prof at Columbia and the son of prominent intellectuals. His father, tenured Columbia professor Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield), is a revered poet; his mother, Dorothy (Elizabeth Wilson), is a famous novelist. His family is one huge brain trust, the kind of clan that trades Shakespeare quotes at family barbecues. Charles always has felt as if he were treading water in this gene pool, and with good reason. He's a bit of a calculated pretty boy, never shy about using his looks and charm to paper over his intellectual gaps. He thinks being on a quiz show would be fun, especially since his life of the mind is going nowhere special.

So into the headquarters of NBC strides a man who's handsome, charming, comes from an intellectual royal family, and wants to be on Tic Tac Dough. The producers can't believe their good fortune. They tell Van Doren they want him to be on Twenty-One instead, supposedly the most formidable quiz show of them all. The hitch: They'd like him to cheat in the name of drama. They'll give him the answers in advance and coach him on how to deliver them spontaneously.

When Van Doren balks, saying he'd rather not be part of a rigged, unreal contest, the show's blandly slimy producer, Dan Enright (Paymer), and his unctuous partner, Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), broadside him with huckster illogic, insisting that lying to America is just another kind of dramatic license. When Van Doren reveals that his teaching job nets him a paltry $86 a week, Enright and Freedman imply that since the game of life is rigged against smart people, why not cheat on a game show? ("Eighty-six dollars a week? Do you know what Bozo the Clown makes? Do you have any idea?") The producers assure Van Doren he'll be allowed to win honestly. "So pure it floats," coos Enright, echoing Ivory soap's famous tag line.

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