Robert Redford’s Quiz Show is an elegant historical drama filled with a nostalgic love for a bygone era of television and of American culture. Though Quiz Show may not cover the most glamorous material imagined (it tells the story of a TV quiz-show-rigging scandal that eventually gets uncovered and revealed by the government), the clear love for the material helps this to become a highly effective drama.
When Jewish man Herb Stempel (John Turturro) is forced to take a dive on the game show Twenty One, he begins making waves, upset that he isn’t getting what’s coming to him. Turturro here quite effectively plays Stempel as a tragicomic figure, simultaneously an object of derision and also someone who clearly feels wronged, who clearly yearns for better than his lot in life. The contestant who replaces Stempel, Charles Van Doren (Fiennes), represents everything that Stempel resents – he’s a gentile, he comes from wealth, he’s handsome and refined and a professor. Fiennes plays Van Doren with an exacting level of nobility, so that his inner conflict as he deals with the guilt of his cheating feels apparent through every tone of his mid-Atlantic accent.
Meanwhile, Congressional lawyer, the Bostonian, Jewish Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), is on the hunt, seeking any clue to try and topple the television industry that he sees is becoming too big and powerful. Morrow is a revelation – I’m no expert on the Boston accent, but his feels authentic, and we see the pride Goodwin has, the respect he has for others, the way he wants to see the best in his peers. Goodwin develops a friendship with Van Doren – the two are peers – and Morrow plays Goodwin’s struggle at exposing his friend’s lies so well; it’s frankly shocking to me based on this performance that Morrow hasn’t had a more distinguished career.
Also appearing in this film are Hank Azaria and David Paymer as slick, scruple-less television executives; both of these actors deliver fine performances as well, sitting on the edge of caricature but never crossing over. Martin Scorsese also makes a fun appearance here acting as another business executive in on the fix; he fits the film really well, and doesn’t stand out as a non-professional actor.
Redford’s direction of this film is a kind that rarely receives the attention it should; he never draws attention to himself as a director, never takes you out of the film, always letting the actors and the story take precedence, never getting in-your-face with cinematography or editing. It’s clear Redford comes from an old-school style of directing here, but it’s entirely appropriate for the material and the era depicted.
All told, Quiz Show is a film that deserves more attention, the kind of film that rarely receives the praise it deserves. Redford’s subtle touch allows his actors to really shine, and the performances are all excellent. Quiz Show is an underrated classic.