Thursday, November 8, 2012

Quiz Show (1994)

For past two decades or so, it has been a favorite sport of good, bad and indifferent filmmakers to define that precise moment in 20th-century history when America lost its collective innocence. Until the release of Quiz Show, the handsome and provocative 1994 film directed by Robert Redford, the consensus had been that this despoiling process began sometime between the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the U.S. troop escalation in Vietnam. One of the more intriguing ideas set forth in Redford's thoughtful yet viscerally exciting drama is that the first signs of corruption and disillusionment already were apparent as early as 1959.

Redford and screenwriter Paul Attanasio vividly evoke the mood and shifting mores of that period in the very first scene of their fact-based film, as an aggressively eager automobile salesman seeks to seduce a skeptical young man with the sleek lines and luxury features of a shiny new Chrysler. Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), an up-and-coming congressional aide, does his best to appear bemused by the sales pitch. But there's no doubt that he is genuinely impressed, if not transfixed, by the car itself. Everything else that follows in Quiz Show can be viewed as variations on this first scene's themes of false values, reckless optimism, self-delusion -- and, yes, seduction.

Attanasio's literate and richly detailed screenplay is based on a chapter in a nonfiction book (Remembering America) written by the real-life Goodwin several years after the events of this film. But Goodwin is only one of three central characters in this fascinating morality play. The two others are Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a patrician, Harvard-educated WASP from a celebrated literary family; and Herbie Stempel (John Turturro), a blunt-spoken, ill-mannered Jewish graduate student who may really be as brilliant as he claims.

What brings these three ill-matched fellows together, and shapes their individual fates, are the misadventures they experience through their involvement with an enormously popular TV quiz show, Twenty-One.

As the movie begins, Stempel is the program's reigning champion. Unfortunately, the producers and sponsors of the New York-based quiz show think he has outlived his usefulness as an audience draw. Even more unfortunately, Stempel has gotten as far as he has as a winning contestant largely because the game has been rigged; the answers have been provided. So Stempel has no real choice in the matter when the same people who helped him cheat insist that he take a dive. With much humiliation, Stempel loses to Van Doren, the kind of glossy, good-looking golden boy who can help a sponsor sell lots of products to millions of captivated viewers.

At first, Van Doren has grave misgivings about his role in deceiving the public. But as the weeks go by, he comes to enjoy his national celebrity (he even appears on the cover of Time magazine) and his media-manufactured status as, in the words of his producer, "the intellectual Joe DiMaggio that this country needs." And, perhaps most important, he appreciates the opportunity to establish a high profile of any sort that will at long last enable him to emerge from the long shadow of his much-respected, superstar-intellectual father (Paul Scofield).

The brave new world begins to crumble for the younger Van Doren only when a bitterly resentful Stempel decides to blow the whistle on the Twenty-One chicanery. Goodwin, who also is Jewish, is particularly attentive to Stempel's charges of anti-Semitism. ("They always follow a Jew with a Gentile - and the Gentile always wins more money!") But as Goodwin continues his investigation of the TV show for a proposed congressional investigation, he falls under the ingratiating spell of Charles Van Doren, almost to the point of becoming a Nick Carraway to Van Doren's Jay Gatsby. That director Redford once starred in a film version of The Great Gatsby makes this development all the more resonant.

Fiennes, who was so fearsomely effective as the Nazi concentration camp commandant in Schindler's List, is equally impressive, in a far subtler fashion, as Van Doren. Likewise, Morrow transcends his own minor shortcomings - his Boston accent is not entirely convincing - to give a strong, sharply defined portrayal rich in ambiguities.

But Turturro is the one who steals every scene that isn't nailed down with his rude, bull-in-a-china shop performance as Stempel, a man who becomes obsessed with dragging down some former partners in deception for their roles in his fall from grace.

 Quiz Show is, first and last, a hugely entertaining story about sharply defined individuals and the qualities that make them unique. But by being so specific about these people and their era, the film also manages to be timeless in what it has to say about the many ways we allow ourselves to be seduced by fool's gold -- by, all too often, things with an allure to which we'd like to think we're immune. Television is only partially responsible for making that seduction so easy in the electronic age.


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