Quiz Show opens with a series of scenes so precisely and artfully realized that you think you're in for a masterpiece. During the credit sequence, a character we don't yet know, but who will turn out to be Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a government investigator, falls head over heels for a showroom Cadillac in a right-on illustration of the rampaging materialism of post-World War II America.
The time is the '50s, and Goodwin is a happy member of the decade. Clutching a chomped-on power cigar and luxuriating in the leather on the car's seats, Goodwin is seduced by a showroom smoothie who tells him to go ahead, turn the car on and take it out for a mental spin. The vehicle gleams so with a now nearly-forgotten sense of American oomph that we're as thoroughly taken in as Goodwin.
The car never leaves the showroom, but director Robert Redford is still taking us for a ride. Pushing his nearly free-floating camera all over Manhattan, Redford follows one anonymous citizen after another as they hurry home to catch that night's showing of television's number-one program, the quiz show Twenty-One. Redford's pacing is brilliant as he wordlessly conveys the sense of how important this show is to its viewers. Minutes have passed before we meet Twenty-One's "star," an ultra-nerdy Jew from Queens named Herbie Stempel (John Turturro). With his crooked teeth, thick-framed glasses and apparent discomfort with his own body, Stempel completely looks the part of a geek who has nothing better to do than pore over the encyclopedia every night, cramming for his next appearance.
After he enters his "soundproof booth," where he will receive his questions, Stempel sweats, mops his brow, grins his crooked grin and answers apparently unfathomable queries. The contrast between Stempel and the car we saw in scene one is stark; he just isn't put together right. He doesn't belong in such a car. Redford has so hooked us into his contrasting visions of perfection and raw, clumsy neediness that the connection between the two becomes visceral, and we're thinking, "Only in America could such an unlovable man become rich and famous." (That thought may well be true. At any rate, America is where this really happened to Stempel, the name of a real-life man whose real-life story Quiz Show draws from.)
Turturro is completely up to Redford's standards. His Stempel, with his awkward cynicism and angry clumsiness, seems ready to come out of his own skin. So it's little wonder that Twenty-One's sponsor, Geritol, feels it's time to make a change, time to bring in a real winner and replace the lucky but unlovable geek.
Enter Charles Van Doren. As portrayed here by Ralph Fiennes, who was so intriguing as the concentration-camp commander in Schindler's List, Van Doren is everything Stempel isn't. He's got good hair, a self-deprecating smile and natural ease. He could, in fact, be the young Robert Redford. But in the fledgling age of television's scheme of things, he lacks one item -- money. Big money, at least. His father, Mark Van Doren, was a Columbia professor of English, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, so Charles was born to style, to panache, even. But not to money. And perhaps not to a strong enough sense of himself. The hunger in his eyes when he watches Herb Stempel win dollars and applause speaks to more than greed.
Fiennes has a tougher assignment than does Turturro, as his character's life is mostly interior, while Stempel is the kind of guy who hears "say it, don't spray it" on a regular basis. Still, Fiennes mostly pulls it off, suggesting Van Doren's vague greediness and neediness. When the two men finally face each other on the quiz show, they seem well-matched, at least in TV terms. Stempel has more money than Van Doren, but it's the Columbia boy who has all the class and looks.
The confrontation between the two brings the film to a crescendo, and provides five minutes of celluloid that are as gripping as anything in recent memory. That's because the game show itself has become secondary. By now, we know the game is rigged, and that the sponsors have decided it's Stempel's turn to take a dive. So the fascination comes not from wondering about who'll win, but from not knowing how these characters will react once they both know the fix is on.
The only problem is, this showdown scene happens some 30 minutes into the film. And unfortunately, Redford never quite hits these high notes again. It's at this point that the investigator Richard Goodwin (on whose memoir the film is based) returns. From here on, the film basically becomes an account of how he cracked the rigged quiz-show case. As we're following his sleuthing, the film is fine. But it only comes close to the power of the early scenes when we're getting somewhere near the inside of Charles Van Doren's head, or when Turturro's Stempel reappears to testify before a Senate panel investigating game-show corruption.
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Rob Morrow has as much screen time as anyone here, but his character, and his performance, don't measure up to the other two. At times, he sounds like he's impersonating Edward G. Robinson. As Van Doren's distinguished father, Paul Scofield is particularly good. His Mark wears his moral strength, and strength of values, lightly, and he and Fiennes convey an affection and an unspoken distance between father and son. In a weird bit, the great monk/writer Thomas Merton makes an appearance. Since Merton was a close friend of Mark Van Doren, that's not exactly inappropriate, though his showing up to crack wise at a birthday party is pretty odd, as is the fact he's played by an actor who looks like Uncle Fester of the Addams Family. Oh well, I guess even a strange Merton cameo is of some value.
This film, too, is certainly of value, even though it was finally just good enough that I wished it were even better.
Directed by Robert Redford. With John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow and Paul Scofield.