Robert Redford makes a good director. He has an eye for how a shot should look and the vision to keep a film true to itself. He also has a talent for letting the story flow from the characters instead of having them controlled by it. But one thing that tends to weight down his films is their rather sluggish pacing. Certainly movies such as "The Milagro Beanfield War" and "A River Runs Through It" aren't remembered for their high levels of excitement. In "Quiz Show", the problem doesn't surface immediately, but one definitely feels its effects by the final reel. As a result, the film seems to go on much longer than its two hour and ten minute length.
The story, which comes from a chapter of the book "Remembering America" by Richard N. Goodwin, tells about the real-life scandal that erupted in 1958 when it was discovered that the immensely popular television game show "Twenty-One" had been rigged. The film starts out just as reigning champion Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) is instructed to "take a dive" by the show's producers, Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria). Although there's no way they could force him to do this, Stempel complies because he wants to foster a good relationship with Enright in the hopes that other work in television might be thrown his way.
The new champion is a clean-cut college professor named Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) whom the producers think the viewing public will take a liking to. They are right on the money and soon Van Doren is winning game after game, earning a tidy sum in the process. Things flow along smoothly until the somewhat unbalanced Stempel runs into one too many brick walls while trying to establish his future in television. He vents his frustrations by informing the local authorities that "Twenty One" is fixed. The case quietly dies, but not before Congressional investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) gets a whiff of it. Goodwin starts digging into the allegations and contacting former contestants of the show.
As the evidence slowly begins to surface, the various participants in the controversy take their positions. NBC President Robert Kinter (Allan Rich) and the spokesman (Martin Scorsese) for the show's sponsor, Geritol, feign ignorance of the goings on. Meanwhile, Goodwin has become friends with Van Doren, despite his dwindling belief in Van Doren's honesty. When the case finally makes it in front of a Congressional committee, Goodwin tries his best to keep Van Doren out of it. The aim was to put television on trial, not the contestants.
Its obvious from the start that Redford thinks that "Quiz Show" is another "JFK". The problem with this is twofold. First, in the entertainment world, the events that transpired are akin to ancient history. Second, the matter itself is rather trivial to begin with. However deceptive and unsporting the practice of giving answers to game show contestants was, it wasn't actually a crime. The producers of "Twenty One" made a good point that, financially at least, there were no losers and the audience enjoyed seeing and rooting for a familiar face week after week, which was true. I get the definite impression that we as an audience are supposed to walk away from the film outraged that such a thing could ever take place. But the reality is that this merely confirms about the past what many people suspect is going on even today.
Don't get me wrong, I think that "Quiz Show" is a good film with smatterings of greatness. Ralph Fiennes, last seen as a sadistic Nazi in "Schindler's List", is a knockout, giving another Oscar-worthy performance. Rob Morrow of TV's "Northern Exposure" is also enjoyable to watch. The supporting cast, which includes Oscar-winner Paul Scofield, is uniformly excellent. The second half of the film does verge on being dull, but it never stops being interesting.