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.
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.
But Quiz Show condemns Van Doren most harshly of all. At least Stempel ultimately levels with himself about the small evil he has committed; wash away the grating egotism and pompous speeches, and Stempel at least has some kind of ethical code, however Machiavellian. He saw his involvement in Twenty-One as a business transaction like any other: He was an actor performing on TV, and he expected to be rewarded in direct proportion to how well he did his job.
Van Doren is more complex, more infuriating, more elusive. He's ahead of his time, the prototype for every subspecies of creature to thrive in the vacuous environment of television -- the talk-show host, the network news anchor, the sportscaster, the advertising pitchman, anybody who ever got paid handsomely for saying his lines and not tripping over the camera cables.
The lesson Van Doren learns, the one Redford and Attanasio make apparent, is that on TV the appearance of sincerity and the illusion of humanity are greeted as if they were the things they imitate; artifice is reality and surfaces are depths. And Van Doren is the right man for a strange new era. Thanks to TV, which first became corporatized after World War II, achievement is now measured in terms of visibility and entertainment value, not eloquence or education or hard work or genuine achievement.
In this postwar promised land for the mediocre, it is better to be inoffensive, perhaps mildly amusing, than brilliant or unique or, Heaven forbid, unpredictable. As Richard Nixon, the Richard III of American politics, will soon prove in his disastrous 1960 televised debate with John F. Kennedy, an unattractive brilliant man will always come in second to the handsome intellectual wanna-be who speaks confidently into the camera; Nixon was Stempel to Kennedy's Van Doren. As The Selling of the President recorded in detail, Nixon and his public relations strike team learned their lesson; eight years later they avoided debates and conducted their campaign almost entirely through colorful, provocative, and utterly lowbrow TV commercials. The medium is the message; it is its own beginning and end, its own objective and reward, and it has no use for those who owe allegiance to some value beyond entertainment.
In a key scene, Scorsese's Geritol president tells Goodwin he's kidding himself if he thinks people will stay outraged for long over the quiz-show scandals, because they never watched the programs to see an awesome display of education and quick thinking in the first place: They watched the shows to see an awesome display, period. "They were watching the money," he says, leering at Goodwin. They were hooked on the suspense of it all. If they couldn't get their fix watching Twenty-One, they'd turn to wrestling or The Lone Ranger. Television, the Geritol boss explains, is not noble, nor was it ever meant to be. It's a vehicle by which to sell Geritol and soap and automobiles and materialistic fantasy. In the long run, he tells Goodwin, the Enrights and Freedmans of the world might be temporarily disgraced, but the people who pressured them to hoodwink the public in order to sell more Geritol will end up richer than ever.
What's worse is that the public probably won't even distinguish between the quiz shows themselves and the televised congressional hearings that probe their corruption; one will seem a part of the other, each part equally fun to watch, equally obfuscatory to notions of integrity or character.
"I thought we were gonna get television," Goodwin says bitterly. "The truth is that television is gonna get us." And he's right.
"The contestants take home prize money," Enright tells Goodwin. "The show gets good ratings, the sponsors get their money's worth, and the viewers are entertained. So what's the problem?"
The lure of televised celebrity is so strong that Stempel accords it godlike force; he even implies to Goodwin that TV left him no choice but to become corrupt. "They made me take a dive!" he keeps pealing.
"Herbert," Goodwin asks Stempel disapprovingly, "how could they make you take a dive?"
This exchange is key to understanding the film's buried optimistic heart. On first glance Quiz Show seems pervaded by an aura of hopelessness -- the feeling that no matter how nobly and justifiably people attack the medium of television, it will still swallow them up.
Law and government are corrupt, too. The film's re-created congressional hearings are deliberately photographed to evoke Watergate and Iran-Contra; lawyers feed their clients testimony like quiz-show questions, which makes sense because the outcome of the hearings was decided in advance. The truly powerful, says Quiz Show, will never be held accountable for wrongdoing; even their twitchy underlings, once sacrificed publicly, will probably bounce back. (In real life Enright bounced back to produce the successful Joker's Wild.)
Yet despite all this evidence that good is virtually powerless against evil, Quiz Show tells us, we still owe it to ourselves as Americans, and as human beings, to keep rewarding the righteous, and to behave righteously ourselves -- even when spotlights shine so seductively, beckoning us ever closer to the abyss. "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall," Van Doren's father tells him, quoting Shakespeare. And the film's final third will bear this out with painful exactness.
When Charles Van Doren turns his own deception into a confession and then a performance before Congress, wins back the country's heart, and transforms a question of morality into another TV drama show, his angelic features assume a subtly demonic cast. He's corrupt enough at the start of his odyssey to be corrupted completely later, just self-deluding enough to convince himself that his corruption is too marginal to matter, and just smug enough to think he can get away with it all. He's the snake who got television kicked out of the garden. He has no real shame, only the illusion of shame; he knows that as long as he puts on a good show, all will be forgiven.
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And indeed, when he reads to a congressional subcommittee a statement of contrition and regret, his senatorial inquisitors greet it with rapt, almost childlike appreciation -- not because they believe his words, but because they liked the moistness in his eyes and the boyish catch in his voice. "That was one of the most soul-searching confessions I've ever heard," says one man on the subcommittee. Only a senator from New York -- played by screenwriter Attanasio's father, Joseph -- isn't taken in. "With all due respect to my fellow subcommittee members," he says, "I don't think any man should be commended for simply, at long last, telling the truth."
Quiz Show is saying that despite television's most concerted efforts, ethics still exist. It's saying that in the ongoing drama that is America, even quiz shows are important; they might seem minor in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn't change the fact that a lie is still a lie. It's saying that over the years, and over the airwaves, even seemingly small moral transgressions can erode our collective standards and coarsen our spirits. Considering we live in an era of Oprah! and Donahue and Hard Copy -- an era that has allowed crass public exhibitionism to replace private shame as our official method of expressing guilt and contrition -- that statement is bold indeed.
And here's what it's asking: If you're willing to commit small breaches of trust, what will you do when you're confronted with something really important? How likely are you to claim that your race, class, and idiosyncratic moral code excuse your behavior? How low will you sink to trade scorn for applause? And how likely are you to put your hands together when other people do it?
These questions are by no means new; they've been analyzed and picked apart for five decades now. But I don't think any Hollywood melodrama has ever examined them quite as thoroughly and with as much respect for human frailty as Quiz Show does. It's a brilliant game of Q&A that never, for one moment, tries to feed you the answers.