Anthony's Film Review

Quiz Show (1994)

The true story of deception, greed, and ethical violations in the world of TV game shows...

If you've ever watched a game show on television, whatever it may be, you can understand its appeal. The anticipation and excitement of watching ordinary people win big cash and prizes can be hard to resist. If the game show involves trivia, like Jeopardy, Tic Tac Dough, or Press Your Luck, there's also the admiration of intelligent contestants who know so much compared to the average TV viewer at home. But what if those supposedly smart contestants looked that way because they were given the answers in advance? Would you keep tuning in if you ever found out?

During the 1950s, several American quiz shows were involved in such rigging scandals. The most notable of these was the show Twenty One, which aired on the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The events surrounding the Twenty One scandal are the focus of Quiz Show, a captivating 1994 drama film. I will say right now that this is certainly a film to watch if you love true stories brought to the movie screen. And like all other movies based on true stories, this one will open your eyes to a topic that you might not know about otherwise.

Quiz Show centers on three prominent characters. The first is Herbert Stempel (John Turturro), a Jewish-American contestant on Twenty One whose knowledge is an inspiration for viewers but who is nevertheless, in my opinion, a pompous know-it-all. He is instructed by producer Dan Enright on the questions that will be presented, the answers to them, and even the little movements and facial expressions to do in order to make the deception look realistic. Why would Enright do something like this? The answer is simple: ratings. It all comes down to how many people are tuning in.

So when ratings start to plateau, Stempel is told to answer a question about the 1955 Academy Awards incorrectly (doing so with a specific incorrect answer). This is where the next major character comes in. Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a very knowledgeable university professor, becomes the new champion on Twenty One, and he, too, is told to follow a script given to him before the next airing of Twenty One. What's interesting here is that Van Doren is reluctant to be on Twenty One once he learns that it's rigged (in fact, he originally wanted to be on Tic Tac Dough). But he gets around it by requesting only the questions in advance, because chances are that he already knows the answers to them.

Finally, the film introduces the third principal character. Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a lawyer working on Congress, becomes interested in the possibility of TV quiz shows being rigged. His investigation brings him to several former contestants on Twenty One, including one who correctly answered a question about poet Emily Dickinson, triggering surprise in the show's host. Then he meets Stempel, who is eager to get his case across. This is where an interesting character transformation occurs, though it's very subtle. Over time, Stempel appears to be a hero doing the right thing, while Van Doren gets in over his head with earning money dishonestly.

Quiz Show doesn't stand out too much among all of the "based on a true story" films out there, but it's still among the pretty good ones. While the performances by the cast aren't necessarily award-worthy, they're far from terrible. I enjoyed this movie simply because of the subject matter and the script that always keeps moving forward. I also left the movie with a reminder of a valuable lesson that is taught all too often but needs to be: no reward, no matter how great, is worth any act of dishonesty. Just ask Herbert Stempel and Charles Van Doren. They've experienced the lesson firsthand and know the damage that can result from lying.

Anthony's Rating:

For more information about Quiz Show, visit the Internet Movie Database.


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