a critiQal film review Quiz Show (1994)

  • DVD
  • Vudu

Plot: Queens-born Herbie Stempel (Turturro) becomes an unlikely hero after winning on America's beloved game show, "Twenty One." When the network decides to bring in a more telegenic contestant, the WASP-ish Charles Van Doren (Fiennes), Stempel takes aim at the show, announcing that the game is rigged. Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin (Morrow) is brought in to examine the claim that winners were given the answers.

492 words (Est. Reading Time 2m 27s)
  • ...a masterpiece of direction, a strong script and standout performances all around make this film about morals and choices a must-see.

With so many film to choose from, sometimes it’s hard to decide what to watch.  Usually, I like perusing my digital collection and NetFlix® for older films.  Today, I stumbled across a film I hadn’t seen in years: Quiz Show.  It brought back some old memories, of when I used to work in a movie theater, and I remembered the end credits (playing to a slow version of “Mac the Knife”) and the slow-motion panning across an audience from the 50’s.  But, would the film be a forgotten gem, or is Quiz Show not quite up for prime time?

John Turturro and Ralph Fiennes lead the cast in Quiz Show.  While Turturro gets top billing, it’s Fiennes remarkable performance as Charles Van Doren that really leads the film.  Sure, Turturro is good as a whiny ex-contestant, but it’s the conflicted Charles Van Doren that really pulls the viewer in.  From his first appearance on the game show, to his final act before Congress, Fiennes really gets viewers to sympathize with his character.  In any normal family, Charles Van Doren would have stood out.  But in his famous family, he’s the underachiever.  Fiennes performance is spectacular – and it is only one of the reasons to watch Quiz Show.

Unlike some movies, however, Quiz Show showcases an outstanding secondary cast as well.  From Rob Morrow’s strong performance as investigator Richard Goodwin, to David Paymer’s sleazy television producer and Christopher McDonald’s talk show host, to small appearances from Mira Sorvino, Hank Azaria and even a spot-on Martin Scorcese, Quiz Show has an outstanding cast.  But out of this strong secondary cast, it’s Paul Scofield’s performance as Charles Van Doren’s father that really stands out.   Like Charles Van Doren, his character is well fleshed out, and together they deliver some of the most poignant moments in the film.

Based on a true story.  Sometimes, that’s the death knell for a film like Quiz Show, which is more about the moral dilemma rather than an flashy life-and-death situation.   But, under Redford’s excellent direction, this film really takes the viewer on an trip.  Sure, it’s subtle, and not the flash-bang viewers of today are used to, but this period piece manages to infuse the viewers with the innocence of the times.  With this brand-new medium, television, there was a sense of awe about things viewers now take for granted, like winning money on a game show.  With this scandal, the aura surrounding television was deflated, and the innocence lost due to this is palpable in Quiz Show.

A masterpiece of direction combined with a strong script and remarkable performances, Quiz Show is definitely a must own.  While it may not be the flashy CGI extravaganza that draws in today’s viewers, it is magnificent in its own right.  It deserves to be seen, not just for its smart filmmaking, but for its remarkable glimpse into an age that seems so different than the one we are currently in.

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