Quiz Show (1994)

Well, the sponsor makes out, the network makes out, the contestants see money they
probably would never see in a lifetime, and the public is entertained! So who gets hurt?

When a champion of the game show Twenty-One , is asked to throw a match for the newcomer, a chain of events is set off that will change television game shows for decades.  Herb Stempel, played by John Turturro, is persuaded to throw the match against Charles Van Doren, played by Ralph Fiennes by the shows producers.  The behind the scenes deception results in a slow deterioration of the trustworthiness of the television industry and the dignity of the players.

Well Written Story

Quiz Show touches on several interesting ideas that are both specific to the late 50’s era as well as consistent through the generations as part of the human experience.  There is struggle in our everyday lives from moral decisions, controlling our emotions, and dealing with the unfortunate events that can barrage us through life.  Quiz Show does an excellent job portraying the multitude of diverse paths that make up the fabric of human interaction as well as stays focused on major themes.  The story that unfolds combines the drama and fallout of show business as well as how the illusion of security and power can be squashed by indulgence and fear.

These changing themes can be seen from a variety of perspectives,  Stempel, Van Doren, Dick Goodwin (Morrow), the young congressional lawyer investigating the scandal, and the big wigs of NBC, are all subject to the ups and downs of navigating a new industry in a society that is desperately seeking entertainment and distraction.  This can be seen from Stempel’s quick fade out of the spotlight, squandering of winnings, and relentless uphill battle to regain his dignity.  Van Doren is swayed by the potential influence to teachers and the intellectual community, as well as the fame and fortune.  Even though NBC came out relatively unscathed, there was still fallout in the quiz show format for several decades after the late 1950’s.

Each party is adequately portrayed in a manner that feels honest and understandable.  It is clear why certain characters make their decision and both the decision and the response seem reasonable.  This is something that tends to fall by the wayside in the majority of film story lines.

While watching Quiz Show, I couldn’t help but think about how the story still has relevance today.   The idea that a powerful corporation that is woven into the daily lives of millions of people can be deceptive and then elusive when caught, is not a shocking concept.  The fact that this is something that remains constant and prevalent over the course of humanity, however, is despairing.


Quiz Show is a great example of a well rounded film.  Everything from the acting, direction, editing, and music complemented the story perfectly.  John Turturro had a mesmerizing performance, as usual.  Paul Scofield received an Academy Award nomination for his role as Mark Van Doren, the father of Charles Van Doren.  Each facet of the production worked together to raise up the quality of one another.

An example of how well everything comes together can be seen from the first scene.  We are presented with an informative and engaging scene that sets the tone, perfectly representing the state of America at the time without any unnecessary exposition.  The vanity and status of the consumerism, manifested in the Harvard graduate looking at the Chrysler 300, is combined with the fear, from the announcement of the Sputnik launch, America falling behind Russia.  The editing by Stu Linder keeps the pacing quick and engaging.  The audience is being sold the Chrysler 300 just as much as Dick Goodwin.

Perhaps the success of this film is due to Robert Redford’s excellent direction.  This can be seen from the dynamic shots and cohesive flow throughout the film.  I will need to check out some of his other directorial work to compare.  There were several great films to come out in 1994, Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, Ed Wood, Lion King, The Mask, Natural Born Killers, and Shawshank Redemption, just to name a few.  So Quiz Show is among good company and a recommended watch.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Directed by: Robert Redford

Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus

Screenplay by: Paul Attanasio

Edited by: Stu Linder

Music by: Mark Isham

Starring: John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow, Paul Scofield, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, Christopher McDonald

Runtime: 2h 13m

Genre: Biography, Drama, History

Distributed by: Buena Vista Pictures

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