Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What's On Netflix?: QUIZ SHOW

Welcome to another installment of WHAT'S ON NETFLIX?, where we pick out a film currently playing on Netflix and review it for the fans. This week's selection is the 1994 drama QUIZ SHOW.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. Quiz Show, directed by Robert Redford and starring John Turturro and Ralph Fiennes, is based on the true story of the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, when allegations, and then evidence, emerged that many of the popular TV game shows of the time were scripted, even outright fixed in some way. The story of the film deals with the quiz show Twenty-One, one of if not the worst offender in these scandals. On Twenty-One, the winner was decided in advance, and given the answers ahead of time to ensure another winning appearance.

The reason for this activity had to do with the eternal masters of the television industry: sponsors and ratings. As the film opens, Herb Stempel (Turturro) is enjoying his run as Twenty-One's reigning champion, already having amassed winnings in excess of seventy thousand dollars. But Stempel is starting to lose his mojo as a ratings magnet, and worse, sales of Geritol, Twenty-One's main sponsor, are flagging. The network heads decree it's time for Stempel to lose, and usher in a new champion. That new champion was an assistant professor at Columbia University named Charles van Doren (Fiennes). The circumstances of Stempel's loss were planned in advance: he would answer incorrectly to the question of what motion picture won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1955. The correct answer is Marty; Stempel would answer with On the Waterfront. I have not been able to find an answer as to why Stempel went along with this -- the movie makes it crystal clear to us that this is an extremely easy question -- but he did, and the humiliation of that loss drove him to expose the crooked nature of the show.

Quiz Show takes what I consider to be a smart tack for movies based on real events, that is, not attempting to conceal from the audience that mystery or question which will drive the characters through the story. The first thing Quiz Show does after the opening sequence is show us, the audience, that Twenty-One is rigged. We watch a series of phone calls between network heads and show runners in which its decided to give Stemple the axe. This makes the characters dealing with the situation the source of the story's drama, as it should be, while not insulting the intelligence of any audience members who may be familiar with the story ahead of time.

With that being said, like all movies based on true events, Quiz Show does take some liberties with its tale. The timeline of the story is compressed, for example, with an investigation that actually took three years shortened to one. Also, the film tells us during the epilogue that following his confession of complicity in the fixing scandal before the Congressional committee investigating the allegations, van Doren never taught again. In an article for the New Yorker in 2008, van Doren wrote that this is not true. "I didn’t stop teaching," van Doren wrote, "although it was a long time before I taught again in a college."

But it should come as no surprise that liberties were taken with the story. This is the way of things, and finding a worse offender for criminal use of artistic license than Quiz Show is not a tall order by any means. So, what of the film's version of the story? The story of Quiz Show is slow, almost novelistic, as a low-level member of a Congressional oversight committee, Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) takes the first steps of investigating Stempel's allegations, investigations that eventually lead to the hearings at the film's ending. As is usually the case, John Turturro keeps things interesting, getting most of the movie's laughs. Fiennes, meanwhile, plays the soft-spoken and highly educated Richard van Doren very well, but I think I actually prefer him in more of an antagonistic role. Not a full-on villain, necessarily -- he doesn't always have to be Lord Voldemort, or Francis Dolarhyde, the killer in Red Dragon -- but he's more restrained here than I'm used to seeing him. Maybe I'm just spoiled by his performance as the SS officer Amon Goethe in Schindler's List. That role was just about in the sweet spot for him.

My only real complaint with this movie is a plot hole that keeps us from learning just why, exactly, van Doren went along with the scam. When he first agrees to appear on Twenty-One, the show's producers tell him in no uncertain terms that the show will be skewed in his favor, with van Doren being asked questions he was given during his audition. Van Doren refuses, and the producers appear to back down. Then, during the show, van Doren is given one of those audition questions, which he answers correctly, and wins. He confronts the producers afterward ... and then we see him going along with the gag later. What happened? My guess is that van Doren was likely overcome with the amount of money he'd just won: twenty thousand dollars, over $176,000 today. That kind of easy money will make people do things they wouldn't otherwise do. I would have liked to see the movie answer this question a little more clearly.

Quiz Show was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. Unfortunately, 1994 was also the year a little movie called Forrest Gump was released, so you can imagine how that turned out. Nevertheless, Quiz Show remains a compelling look at one of the less glamorous chapters in the history of American television, and a conversation starter about the role game shows play in popular culture. This movie is hard to find on DVD, so if you haven't seen this one, now's your chance.

Quiz Show is rated PG-13 for some strong language.

Robert's Score: 7 / 10

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