By Amy Nicholson
By Juan Barquin
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Michael Atkinson
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Amy Nicholson
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
Over dinner, Enright tells Stempel that next time he goes on the show, he'll intentionally lose to Van Doren by getting an easy question wrong: the name of the 1955 Oscar winner for Best Picture, Marty. As compensation, NBC will foot the bill for his psychoanalysis and consider him as a regular guest on a panel discussion show. Stempel is aghast. Marty, about an oafish, working-class Brooklyn man desperate to rise above his station in life, is one of his favorites. "You wanna make me take a dive!" he shrieks. Yet because his addiction to fame exceeds his moral outrage, he agrees, and his reign as the king of Twenty-One ends. (On that same show, despite the producers' assurances that everything is on the up-and-up, Van Doren is given a question he already answered correctly during a preshow interview. "That question sounds strangely familiar," he says disgustedly. He's upset -- but not upset enough to walk away and forfeit a shot at celebrity.)
Van Doren becomes a national celebrity. His conscience nags at him but never loudly enough; whenever Van Doren feels guilty for deceiving his family, his colleagues, and the millions of viewers, he rationalizes his way back to complacency. The essential absurdity of the whole enterprise helps him feel superior to both his fans and his bosses. ("I'm a college professor," he stresses. "The professor is wanted in makeup!" chimes a production assistant.) Morally and mentally, Van Doren is slumming; yet he thinks because he knows he's slumming, he's somehow less corrupt and distasteful than the Stempels of the world. He thinks his self-awareness shields him from culpability.
Meanwhile, Stempel has figured out NBC and Geritol never had any intention of honoring their promises to him. Enraged, he threatens to go to the press. ("The fix is in! Tonight on Twenty-One!" Stempel bellows with such hateful glee that he looks as though his head is about to start rotating on his neck.) Stempel's story does eventually come out in a couple of New York City newspapers, only to be torpedoed by the network as the ravings of a transparent chiseler, a sore loser, a crazy egghead Jew.
Although Stempel's case makes it to a federal grand jury, his gripes are labeled groundless. The records are sealed by a corrupt judge A supposedly to protect the reputations of all involved A the first time since the 1869 that such a thing has happened in New York. Clearly, this little quiz show isn't so little after all. Concern over its fate has prompted a small cabal of very powerful people to pull the right strings and hide the truth from view. The show, as they say, must go on.
Everybody wants to be something they're not. Herbert Stempel wants to be rich, respected, and beloved, but wants all of these things immediately and is willing to sell his soul to get them. Charles Van Doren wants to be financially secure without help from his family and to win the respect of his brilliant, demanding, seemingly perfect father A and he doesn't believe the fact that he's not very ambitious, hard-working, or worthy of respect should stop him.
Congressional investigator Richard Goodwin is in a similarly troubling predicament. An assimilated Jew from greater Boston who graduated top of his class at Harvard law and longs to soar with the WASPs, Goodwin sees the quiz-show scandal as his ticket to fame and power. He wants to bring down some very big targets A NBC, Geritol, the whole rotten system A partly because they expended outrageous amounts of time and energy lying to America about a very small matter, but mostly because he wants that new car and the image that comes with it.
It's in the character of Goodwin that all of the film's contradictions intersect and collide. On one hand he seems the consummate thinking-man's hero A a rumpled, beetle-browed, proto-yuppie Columbo with a stylized claym chowdah accent, wheedling questions from those he interviews like a panhandler.
Yet his motives aren't so pure that they float. In chasing Stempel, a walking, talking Jewish stereotype, and Van Doren, a polished ur-WASP, Goodwin is chasing two halves of his own conflicted personality. It troubles Goodwin only slightly that in order to humiliate the real bad guys, the old-money fat cats who own everything in the country, Goodwin must destroy the careers of some of his own people A middle-class Jews like Enright and Freedman, whose grunt work keeps NBC's corporate wheels turning. In order to please and ultimately become the people he idolizes -- the old-money WASPs who pull America's strings -- Goodwin must annihilate the people he's afraid of becoming. That's why, even as Goodwin becomes more convinced that Van Doren is as corrupt as everybody else, he just can't bring himself to subpoena him. It would be like slandering Superman.
"You're the Uncle Tom of the Jews!" warns his wife, Sandra (Sorvino). "Doing these investigations without Charles Van Doren would be like doing Hamlet without Hamlet!"
What Redford and Attanasio are getting at is the way the media-age culture of capitalism -- expressed through image-crazy, content-loathing, ad-driven TV -- subordinates everything in American life, even ethics and morality and racial solidarity, to the worship of celebrity. In the glare of the spotlights, ethical lapses mean nothing; all that matters is getting your name and face on the tube so that you can someday afford everything you see advertised on that same tube. In the age of television, it's desirable to be rich, but it's equally desirable to be famous. Perhaps even more desirable. Getting booted off TV riles Stempel considerably more than having his financial gravy train derailed.
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