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Quiz Show - 1994

Quiz Show - 1994

Director(s): Robert Redford

Writer(s): Paul Attanasio (screenplay) / Richard N. Goodwin (book)

Cinematography by: Michael Ballhaus

Editor(s): Stu Linder

Cast: John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Ralph Fiennes, Paul Scofield, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, Christopher McDonald, Allan Rich, Mira Sorvino and Martin Scorsese


Last year the great Robert Redford announced his retirement from filmmaking. He went out with a bang in David Lowery’s The Old Man & the Gun (link to review), and while I will tackle more of his acting roles this year, I wanted to review what I think is his best directorial output; 1994’s Quiz Show. 

The story centers around the 1950's quiz show scandals. NBC producer Dan Enright (Paymer) allowed his contestants to win on his show 21 Questions for multiple weeks in a row because ratings implied that a returning champion meant more eyes on the TV. When his current champion, Herb Stempel (Turturro), ratings start to level out, Enright asks him to take a "dive" in favor of the newcomer Charles Van Doren (Fiennes). When Stempel sees the level of fame Van Doren is achieving, and fearing life outside the spotlight, he turns government informant hoping to show the world the fraud Van Doren is.  The screenplay Attanasio wrote stayed as faithful as possible based on the book Richard N. Goodwin wrote. Goodwin was working for the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce and was the man spearheading the investigation into the quiz show. Attanasio captured the way TV shows engrossed our lives, what later we would refer to as appointment viewing. Families would gather around the television, and the following day people would talk about the show. The reach and power of this show are now watered down due to the endless options viewers have, but back in the 50s if you were on a TV show, you where part millions of homes. They trusted you, loved you, and looked forward to seeing you once a week. That trust and that reliance pave the way for the scam NBC perpetrated on the American audience.


An aspect of the film I did not expect was how it paints the contestants. You understand Stempel's plait how he saw a way out of his economic situation. How he got addicted to fame and how the world treated him due to his knowledge. I wasn't routine for him per se, he is not a likable individual, and it's not his personality - is that fact that he was in on the scam and wanted to burn it all down because he was no longer part of the fraud. While I wanted Goodwin (Morrow) to win and take down everyone involved, I found myself somehow rooting for Van Horne and his aspirations to carve out a pathway out of the shadow of his family. His consuming pressure to live up to his name. The way Redford showcased their back and forth, and the humanity behind what can be seen as greedy or self-serving was very compelling.

This story saddens me as I realized that this is one of the turning points in our society. Not the fact that NBC and the executives got away with their scam, there is always a scapegoat when men with power are at play, but the fact that people used to celebrate knowledge and now we celebrate, well "celebrities". The American audience was in awe of the knowledge winners of “21 Questions” processed and their ability to work under pressure. Van Horne was a blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful single-man that captivated the public’s attention through his looks, brain, and status in society. He became more important than the show itself. Now our shows are about who is the drunkest, who is the richest, and who is the dumbest person on reality TV. Worth or fame in the public eye is no longer earned.


The film is also gorgeous to look at, elevated by set the set design of the offices and the studio and beautiful costume design. Redford managed to build tension and a sense of desperation throughout the film, with the use of zoom in and camera placements, making the audience feel part of the events. My favorite scene is when Van Horne is in front of the senators, how the camera zooms in on the back of his head as the entire world is watching him and all his wrongdoings finally caught up to him.

Quiz Show is a straight forward look into one of the most influential court decisions - regarding entertainment. The shift towards money-based shows after this scandal skyrocketed and changed the television landscape as we know it. With an immensely talented cast that hit on all cylinders, Turturro stealing the film, an excellent screenplay and a steady hand behind the camera, one can easily argue that it belongs in the modern classic category. I would highly recommend giving this film a shot. Robert Redford is why I love movies. 


Quiz Show is Glass Half Full.

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