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The Quiz Show

December 5, 2006
“With great power comes great responsibility”-Spiderman
In any democratic society, the media,or the fourth estate, is the most powerful of all. The media is a very loose term, but it includes the print media(newspapers, magazines) and the visual media(TV). As we have seen with Watergate, the Emergency in India, Tehelka, they have the power to make or break a government. But as Spidey’s uncle told about power and responsibility coming together, what happens, when the media abuses it’s great powers to manipulate events for it’s own commercial purposes. What happens when TV channels, throw ethics to the wind, for commercial purposes? What happens when normally intelligent and sensible people fall prey to the temptation of “15 minutes of instant fame” and end up wrecking their careers?
Such questions are explored in a searing and intense manner by Robert Redford in his 1994 movie, The Quiz Show. Redford’s earlier two movies as a director, Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It, were more about the internal struggles in an American family. The Quiz Show is his first attempt to tackling a realistic theme, about a scandal which happened during the 1950’s. The movie as the name suggests is about the Quiz Show scandals which took place on American TV during the 1950’s, with NBC being the prime culprit.
The genesis is NBC’s own quiz show Twenty One, a sort of KBC type of show, where the contestant is asked 21 Questions, and the person who answers all is the winner. While the winner of the show would not become a millionaire or a crorepati, he was assured of instant fame and fortune. Yes media during the 1950’s in US, resembles a lot like our own media back here in India. Lots of instant celebrities having their 15 minutes of fame.NBC’s Twenty One was being won regularly by Herb Stempel( played by John Turturow). The problem is Herb is not a very popular winner, he is bucktoothed, nerdy, ordinary looking, comes from a working class and worst of all he is Jewish. In the WASP( White Anglo Saxon Protestant) dominated 50’s era, that was a clear no no. He was the antithesis of how a good American should be like. The ratings are dropping and NBC needs something to shore it up.And they find that in Charles Van Doren( Ralph Fiennes). He is everything that Stempel is not. He is a WASP, good looking, handsome, Ivy League Educated, stays at Queens, his father is a Pulitzer Prize winner. In short Charles Van Doren, is the ideal American hero, which the show needs very badly. And so the producers of the show Jack Barry and Dan Emright, strike a deal with Herb Stempel, lose the show to Van Doren, and we pay you the money. Stemple refuses the offer outright, but is coerced into accepting it.Van Doren at first is not much amused by the proposal, as he says Cheating on a quiz show? That’s like plagiarizing a comic strip!”.
But greed gets the better of him, and he accepts to cheat. As expected Van Doren becomes an instant hero with the public, he wins around $138,000 and even comes on cover of Time magazine. As Stempel finds himself being totally overshadowed, he blows the whistle on the fraudulent operations going on. And the Govt appoints Dick Goodwin(Rob Morrow) as the investigator into the scandal. Watch the movie to see how the scandal is uncovered and the fall from grace of Charles Van Doren.
The Quiz Show is Robert Redford’s best movie as a director, as he takes a no holds barred look at the media manipulations. And the worst part is that the movie chillingly echoes reality, it was centered around American TV in the 1950’s, but it could be the story of today’s TV Channels driven by a greed for TRP’s. And Redford, doesn’t attempt to sugarcoat the issue, as he brutally exposes the sleaze behind the cameras.Being set in the 1950’s, Redford also places a lot of attention to period details, and creates the ambience well. But it’s in the TV quiz scenes, that Redford shows his skill as director. The scenes involving the Quiz Show are brilliantly shot, using a montage of fast cutting images, black and white visuals, and TV backdrops.
And Redford doesn’t falter on the dramatic quotient either. Whether it’s the scenes where the TV producers convince Van Doren, to be their partner in crime, the scene where investigator Dick Goodwin gets to know the details from Stemple, the courtroom scenes depicting Van Doren’s fall from grace, every scene totally involves you with some wonderfully witty dialogues.
Also Redford doesn’t try to make his characters black and white. Stempel is a whistleblower, but he is no dyed in the wool angel. He himself has cheated before, and he blows the whistle only when he finds himself threatened. Nor is Van Doren, depicted as a nasty caricature. He is basically a nice guy who finds himself unable to resist temptation, which results in his tragic fall. The movie is also helped by some excellent performances.
John Turturro who appeared in a host of indie movies like Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou, is a perfect choice for role of Herb Stemple. As the person who blows the whistle on the operation, to a man who finds himself having to fight for his identity, he is first rate.
Ralph Fiennes, had already made a name for himself as the sadistic Nazi Colonel Amon Goeth in Schindlers List. In this he again gets to play a negative but albeit sympathetic role, as Charles Van Doren, and he once again comes up with a brilliant performance. He is especially outstanding in the final courtroom sequence, where he finds his world coming down. Anyway his handsome looks saw him acting in many romantic movies like The English Patient, The End of the Affair and Maid in Manhattan.
All in all do watch this movie to have a look at the media manipulations. But watch it alone or either with like minded people. This is a movie where every frame needs to be taken in. Simply one of the best.
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