Quiz ShowReviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 07/30/04 23:04:01
Conspiracy thrillers are usually of national, if not greater, importance and after-effects. 'JFK', 'All The Presidents Men' and even 'Shattered Glass', were all conspiracies that would have lasting effect through history. Compared to them who cares about one crummy fixed quiz show? Robert Redford recognises however, that if anything says something about our lives in the technological age, it's entertainment. After all, tv shows are people lives.'Twenty One' is the top rated American quiz show in the 1950's. Or it would be if its ratings hadn't come grinding to a halt. The reason? The reigning champion, Herbie Stempel (John Turturro). He's the cleverest man on tv, there's nothing he doesn't know and he's becoming a hero in his suburb. He's also buck-toothed, bug-eyed, and as one wit puts it, "has the ideal face for radio". And he's also a Jew.
After pressure from the sponsors of the show and their immediate superiors, the producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) hatch a plan to get rid of Stempel. They make him take a dive by getting an easy question wrong, with the promise of more tv work on other shows. Enter Charlie Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). Young, handsome, a college professor from one of America's leading intellectual families, he's Dan's and Albert's blue-eyed hope for 'Twenty One'. But how to make sure he reigns as champion and become the new poster boy for America? Why, feed him the correct answers. They don't count however on Government investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) smelling a rat...
There are those who would immediately dismiss the premise of 'Quiz Show' as dull. After all who does care about a rigged quiz show? As Freedman and Enright point out to the conscience-stricken Van Doren, everyone knows the magician really doesn't saw the woman in half.
But as Redford points out, this isn't about a simple deception. It's about the inequalities of race and class in America. Van Doren may have the looks for tv, but crucially he isn't a Jew either. He's a much more acceptable face for Time magazine. And then there's his family to consider. Who wants to support a Jewish nobody from Brooklyn when you could have one of America's favourite sons in the spotlight instead? This inequality spreads right from the set-up of the show to the shadowy pay-masters behind it. You can bet that when Goodwin starts sniffing around, that the top execs will close ranks with their friends in the Justice Courts and that it'll be the men in the middle who become the fall guys. Sound familiarly like a certain US President and his old business dealings? Its' these kind of issues that still resonate today.
It's also refreshingly free of simple heroes. Stempley may be wronged, but he's also a jabbering loud mouth and a barely contained egotistical maniac who truly believes that all America love him. And when he goes after the truth is it because of justice, vengeance against Enright and Freedman, or sheer spite against Van Doren? Redford and writer Paul Attansio are clever enough to know it's all three probably.
Likewise Van Doren. Handsome intellectual he may be, but he's also spineless and cowardly. Although his scruples and morals are initially raised when he's offered the chance to cheat, they quickly disappear when a nice fat cheque is dangled in front of his eyes, his classrooms are filled with adoring students and he's mobbed by autograph hunters on the street. Coupled with the crippling weight of a recognised genius for a father (Paul Schofield), he's a knotted rope of inner anxiety.
Even Goodwin isn't a stereotypical good guy. Is he out for justice or just to further his own name? Why is he keen to grant Van Doren a chance to escape the fall-out of bad publicity, when he has no qualms about dragging Stempel into court? And when he denies he'd make the lies that Van Doren did on the show...we just can't quite believe him. And even by the end, he's barely achieved a victory and is more sickened by what's happened at the climax than at the beginning of his investigation.
It's a wonderful tangled web of murky morality, petty jealousies and inner prejudices, that Redford just stands outside and stares at, never making a judgment and constantly causes the audience to question: what would you do? Who do you feel sorry for?
The cast respond wonderfully with stellar work across the board. It's marvelous to see a cast clearly relishing a smart, intelligent and incisive script. Pointed quips about the usefulness of television and the trend of technology outstripping the usefulness of man abound, and there's several conversations that crackle with dynamism and tension, because they're weighted with subtext and delivered with force.
Turturro (one of the most under-rated actors working today) simply burrows into the twitching Stempel and you're never sure whether to feel sorry for him or slap him for believing his hype so much. He may have the initial right on his side, but see what he's destroyed by the end and see if you agree with him then.
Fiennes is also superb perfectly conveying Van Doren's inner anguish, with seemingly very little effort. It's all in his increasingly agitated body language and gleaming blue eyes. You may initially favour him as a pawn, but when you consider how much he had to lose and how intelligent and powerful his family was, is he actually worse than Stempel? After all, more kids look up to him than they ever did to Stempel.
Morrow brings a lot more to the seemingly simple role of Goodwin than most would. He has an intense arrogance to not be beaten even when he's afraid of just who the conspiracy will hurt the most. He's perhaps the most anguished of all the characters, recognising himself in both Stempel and Van Doren, and Morrow expertly conveys this self-conflict.
Azaria and Paymer are also excellent as the slippery producers constantly manipulating and outmaneuvering, even though they're being manipulated themselves and simply following orders. Again, there's no clear-cut heroes and villains here. If there is one clear-cut hero, it's Schofield as Van Doren senior, who goes from pride to bewilderment to disgust, at his sons predicament.
It's a cast of wonderful actors all giving terrific understated and shaded performances. This acting is also framed by Redford's superb direction.
He doesn't over-egg the direction with un-neccessary flourishes and fancy style. He knows the material's powerful enough, so he allows it to carry his direction. It's a simple, unfussy style that says more in the distance between two characters in an empty classroom than a thousand words could say. He also makes the scenes of the quiz show itself with Stempel and then Van Doren sweating over the planted answers superbly tense and claustrophobic as they're trapped in their cramped booths.Admirably old-school in it's treatment of the material, it has a modern sensibility to it in that it never takes sides. Instead it lets its superb cast play out the raging mass of morals in all their shades of black and white. And at the end there's only two questions worth asking: If they offered you the money, what would YOU say? And who are we to judge those who said yes?
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