Quiz Show (1994, Robert Redford)
When the controllers of the living-room monoculture graduated from radio to television, there was inevitably a moment when the power of transmission of commerce and sponsorship into every family’s private home became absolutely clear in its incalculability, when the forces that dictated the forms that popular culture would take in the decades to come got their most inarguable taste of what sheer lightning they now wielded. That moment corresponded with the quiz show scandals of the middle 1950s, a fascinating episode that tells us a great deal about America’s character as a nation and how that character was permanently altered by TV. It also tells us how quickly the networks and their sponsors learned how far they could push the American public, and how they could tweak those limits. The events themselves were simple enough: at the height of the primetime game show craze that took hold near the end of network television’s first decade, several programs — most notably NBC’s Twenty-One, though the first domino to fall was actually the short-lived, Colgate-sponsored Dotto — were found to have been feeding contestants answers in an effort to control the personalities that kept appearing before the cameras week after week, thus affecting ratings and advertisers, but as an ancillary result managing to alter the unspoken conventional wisdom over whose visage actually belonged on the glowing screens of the United States, and what impressions and thoughts those personalities were capable of or interested in implanting into us.
Charles Van Doren was an unlikely yet somehow impeccable superstar of the moment; as a long-running Twenty-One contestant whose clean-cut demeanor and seemingly boundless knowledge made him a pop culture phenomenon (on the cover of TV Guide and Time in 1957, accompanied on the latter by a caption that says much: “brains vs. dollars on TV”), he was beloved by his network for his mass appeal as a comforting and competent presence — he brought eyes to sets, relaxed sex appeal and the tension of the ticking clock and all. But in the exact same America in which Dwight Eisenhower had won two elections over grousing about his opponent Adlai Stevenson’s eggheadedness, Van Doren’s popularity had the unexpected effect also of adding an intellectual appeal to the burgeoning medium; he was the privileged offspring of Mark and Dorothy Van Doren, upper-crust academic writers and editors both. It’s relatively low on his list of achievements, but Mark Van Doren was film critic for The Nation in the 1930s, where he said of Modern Times: “The film as a whole means no more than Charlie Chaplin means.” So it goes: Mark’s son Charles meant whatever America needed him to mean, and in 1994’s Quiz Show he means what director Robert Redford needs him to mean, largely regardless of his own consent or, as far as Van Doren seems to want us to realize, willpower. He became another contestant on Twenty-One, the most charismatic, amiable and reassuring of all (think of an anti-Arthur Chu), enough so that hordes of the public became invested in his becoming rich, a life of hard work and intelligence paying off at last. He was also, like his predecessor the eventual whistleblower Herb Stempel (John Turturro, in a somewhat off-the-handle performance that’s nevertheless deeply compelling), a contestant to whom the answers were given. The justification by his benefactors and by his own conscience was that he would have known or been able to learn the answers himself, so high-level were his faculties, so in his case it wasn’t even really a “lie.” Was it? And how could he say no?
Redford’s lengthy exploration of this rich narrative, forging a bond between the audience and the characters that’s formed into what may or may not be even higher drama than the game shows that inspired it, is a long movie but one that’s worth every second — it doesn’t entirely escape the superficial period-piece indulgences common to Hollywood reenactments of things that, at time of production, were still in something like conscious cultural memory, but there’s very little of that unfortunate winking to distract us from what is actually an incredibly nuanced portrait less of a long-ago zeitgeist than of a handful of people whose lives were forever altered by that moment. The cracking screenplay by Paul Attanasio demonizes no one, but also leaves little doubt of its adherence to a coherent point of view: that is to say, the key players and Van Doren in particular all performed according to their instincts, but those instincts were often revealing darker forces that had formed who these figures were, what kind of world they were occupying and where that world was heading. There’s sympathy and wit, and a masterfully ambiguous fate for each of three major figures, but there is also a sense of sickening inevitability. The investigation becomes a tragedy of sorts; it can uncover something that should very well be obvious to all, but somehow it seems impossible to stop the forces it underlines: the permeation of commercially motivated popular culture into every aspect of day to day life, and the reigning over all else of privilege, the most benign elements of which are made less benign by how plainly they benefit from the more blatant, less apologetic forces of greed.
Quiz Show has a real-world urgency that calls to mind the Redford-produced and -starring All the President’s Men, part of a subgenre of procedural based-on-fact narratives that at their best (The Insider, Shattered Glass, Zodiac and Spotlight to name a few) are as exciting and breathless as great thrillers. Such films ride overwhelmingly on detail rather than emotion, even though the best of them overcome this limitation through the great work of actors or through a deep recognition of human truth underneath all the gripping process-nerd, investigative action. In this case Redford locates the human core of the film both in the righteousness of plucky Harvard Law grad Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow, a good anchor despite controversial accent) who’s working for a congressional subcommittee to investigate the quiz shows, and in the film’s overall sense of alignment with a country’s collective fascination with early television and disappointment when the oft-illusory nature of its vicarious thrills is uncovered, at least for a while. Erring toward subtlety even at its big dramatic crescendoes, the film locates verisimilitude everywhere, in minor characters like Goodwin’s wife Sandra played by Mira Sorvino, whose believable coolness adds considerable vitality to the film’s scattered domestic scenes, or in the depictions of NBC as a slick capitalist machine to churn out undemanding product in one direction, eyeballs and money in another. The scandal is simply so readymade for this kind of intricate, point by point storytelling it feels as though Redford scarcely has to create much in the way of additional drama.
What he does create is the space for several actors to run with their characterizations and create remarkable, larger-than-life impressions carved from telecined memories. Every role in the picture is beautifully cast down to the smallest (even Martin Scorsese shows up barking orders over telephones as a rep for Twenty-One sponsor Geritol), but the heart of it is Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren. Fiennes’ youth and eagerness here are striking when compared to most of his other signature rules, including a year earlier in Schindler’s List; but his evocation of Van Doren, the budding educator and golden child, the well-bred academic and the NBC pop star, is incredibly perceptive and full-bodied in its projection of both discomfort and unchecked, nearly unconscious self-regard. It would be simple enough to depict Van Doren as a sort of naive and railroaded alien, too pure for the machinations overtaking his life, too pure even to realize the depth of his own wrongdoing; equally the film could flaunt the lie at the core of so much “white collar” crime — what I do is not wrong because I am the one doing it and I do not act badly — and shame him into submission. Fiennes takes neither route; we’re privy in every second to his self-torture over the basic dishonesty of his new life, but also to why it’s so extraordinarily beneficial to him and why it feeds into his extant ego. The core of his personage is laid out nicely in his onscreen relationship to his father (Paul Scofield, stoic but sensitive) and the way its easy intellectual repartee, and the yearning of one to impress the other, is disrupted from the beginning by NBC glamour. But simultaneously, the story of the film is in the elder Van Doren’s expectations for his son, and the elbow room the entire family is provided by an illusory, society-wide sense of what it means to be “important.” In this sense we see that Charles Van Doren, and network game shows, only reinforce and finally extend the power of an established order spanning generations. On a person to person level, it’s not even malicious; what’s being blindly upholded comes to feel like just the natural order, but when a transgression like this occurs, and it’s plainly visible who is being cast aside in favor of it — Stempel for sure in this case, whose undoing comes as a result of being requested to miss an embarrassing question about Marty, but even the investigator and semi-protagonist Goodwin whose moral compass requires no external validation to measure itself, and who would never be at the receiving end of the adulation Van Doren briefly finds — that’s when we get a picture of something that’s much longer lived than a television trend.
This is how Quiz Show ultimately manages to provide one of the most salient and economical portraits of privilege in cinema. (It’s a lovely accident of fate that Marty, about working class New Yorkers, becomes such a thematic linchpin.) It flows downward from the top and ends where it wishes: NBC chairman Robert Kintner (Allan Rich, who again is ingeniously cast) having a friendly chat about their last shared golf game to the congressman (Oren Harris) chairing the committee that’s about to interrogate him — golf, incidentally, as the ultimate symbol of tone-deaf prestige, something I really don’t believe most movies of this commercial caliber would point out — but more than anything in the way that Van Doren is brought down to earth in ways he can’t even fathom. Selling himself as the eternal gifted child who was led astray and giving a self-congratulatory statement about his valiant struggle to tell the truth, he receives the expected commendations from several members of the panel, only to then be castigated by Steven Derounian, who pointedly announces that he’s from “a different part of New York” than Van Doren. His monologue is from the historical record: “Mr. Van Doren, I am happy that you made the statement, but I cannot agree with most of my colleagues who commended you for telling the truth, because I don’t think an adult of your intelligence ought to be commended for telling the truth.” The chamber then erupts in applause, an injection of anti-classism into the moment. It’s bittersweet for Goodwin: unlike his wife, who (in a speech that makes one particularly sad that Sorvino’s career stalled after the mid-’90s) gathers that Van Doren is more of a phony, seduced by high regard, than he lets on even to intimates, he has no interest in destroying a person, even as he recognizes that obliviously meaning well is not enough to redeem such a man. He understands the catharsis this moment allows for deceived Americans, but also realizes that the NBC executives in the room, like the opportunistic double-teaming parrots Dan Enright and Albert Freedman (David Paymer and Hank Azaria), will hear this outburst of populist anger and the cogs will start turning: how can this impulse be turned into our favor? We would gradually find out, and we certainly know now. “Television is gonna get us,” he says. It’s on the nose and it’s also indisputable.
[Includes some scattered leftover work from a 2005 review of the film.]