Quiz Show (1994)

1994 was a golden time for films, Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Forest Gump, Four Weddings and a Funeral and The Lion King, incidentally only four of these was nominated for Best Picture Oscar what was the other? It was Quiz Show (if this question ever comes up in a quiz).

Quiz Show is loosely based on the real life events in the late 1950s regarding the television show Twenty One and its how it partly came to be a catalyst for ending the trust between the American public and television, you could say it was also a point of the loss of innocence.

The film centres on Richard Goodwin an idealistic young lawyer out of Harvard who wants a challenge, he spots a news article about a cover up of information and goes about investigating, what he uncovers has far more impact than he could have imagined.

He meets Herbert Stempel a young Jewish man who was Twenty One’s  most successful contestant (until he lost to a young charismatic, smart and attractive Charles Van Doren) Stempel claiming he was forced to take a dive as it was good for the ratings.

Goodwin at first dismisses the fact why someone like Van Doren who holds several degrees, lectures at Columbia University and hails from a highly educated family would want to be involved in a fixed TV quiz show, but the further he delves the more he learns that all that glitters is not gold.

Robert Redford’s directing is very good, the opening shot of Goodwin admiring a brand new car in a showroom shows that Goodwin likes fine things but price/money are stopping him from buying the car. We are then shown a bank vault and an envelope being taken out and transported to a studio. The envelope contains questions for the show Twenty One – is knowledge more valuable than money? The scene is seeded by shots of people rushing home to turn on their televisions to watch the show, Redford then pulls us into the shows inner working and a behind the scenes of what happens on set all very intriguing.

The tension in the film is very well utilised in particular during the questions the contestants face, it is almost as if you are really watching a show within a show and knowing the background of the characters helps you to relate to them and care about what happens – this sort of sounds familiar (reality shows?).

The screenplay is also very good, I felt I actually learnt a few things (it was like watching University Challenge). And of course the acting is top notch. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant as Van Doren, he balances the right amount of charisma, pathos and vindictiveness for the role. John Turturro is good as the nerdy, angry and simpleton Stempel. Rob Morrow as Goodwin is good too but at times his acting does feel forced, but it is Paul Scofield (playing Van Doren’s father) who steals every scene that he is in, they don’t make them like they used to, he is very good. The Reuben’s sandwich scene is a particular favourite of mine. Oh and watch out for one of my favourite directors Martin Scorsese playing an obnoxious pharmaceutical head – delightful.

Quiz Show is a very well made film, it does not bore you, I was hooked and eager to see what happens in the end. I don’t hear many people recalling this film from the golden age of cinema, but it definitely deserves full recognition, it is gripping, smart, funny and sad. It also raises questions which we are still dealing with today, Are we being fed ‘fake’ news? Do we trust what TV tells us? Do we care or are we just looking to be ‘entertained’? Are we obsessed with fame? Can money really make us important? Does your background determine your standing in life?

Rating 4/5


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