Saturday, December 21, 2013

Quiz Show: A Study of Time and Place

Movie Review: Quiz Show

Director: Robert Redford

Reviewed: 21 December 2013

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

Robert Redford's Quiz Show focuses its attention on the scandals of the 1950's television game show "21" where sponsors and network executives conspired to give trivia answers to contestants before the competition. By manipulating the outcome of the game itself, they attracted ratings and revenue to the show, never so more as when landing blue blood college professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a young star struck appealing television presence. Van Doren replaces the grating Herb Stemple from Queens (John Turturro), a neighborhood hero who must make a decision whether or not to take a dive for the show when the producers tells him to do so. The drama here is riveting stuff.  Redford provides insight into both Stemple's family in Queens and Van Doren's family in Connecticut. The son of a famous American writer, Van Doren quietly descends farther and farther down the road of  cheating, and in part, Redford suggests, his relationship with his acclaimed father is at its core. Regardless, an investigation into who knew what when ensues.

Detail-wise, Redford has assembled a wonderful collection of 1950's outfits, cars, hairstyles, and television hardware. He chronicles the emergence of television as a powerful force in American culture, and the behind-the-scenes machinations are fascinating to watch, especially as Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) gets involved. Goodwin wants to attack television's higher-ups, not just the contestants. There are some nice moments of a burgeoning friendship between Goodwin and Van Doren as one circles the other, gathering evidence.

The film is well-cast and very smart. I enjoyed thinking about it. My only criticisms are in the lead performance of Rob Morrow. I do not feel that he carries the film sufficiently, and he has to do much of the lifting. He may be too young or just lacking of the gravitas of the character. And Ralph Fiennes, incredibly young here, has a speech at the end outlining Van Doren's beliefs and acceptance, but there is little of the conflict within him as he receives accolade after accolade. I think we are meant to believe that jealousy of his father's success drove him, but the details are vague. I wanted to know more about Charles Van Doren, but the decision to focus so much on Stemple and Goodwin means less screen time, less back story, less motivation for Van Doren. Ultimately, Quiz Show is a well-constructed historical film about a time when money drove the television networks to manipulate and hurt the people it built up and then destroyed on a national stage.

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