Quiz Show (1994)
Directed by Robert Redford
Written by Paul Attanasio
Starring Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Paul Scofield, Christopher McDonald, David Paymer, Hank Azaria, Martin Scorsese
Release Date September 14th, 1994
Published November 7th, 2023
The erosion of public trust was not simply something that happened as a result of Watergate. The erosion of public trust can be traced to several different historic flashpoints that include such events as the assassination of President Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, the McCarthy hearings, Vietnam, and, less historically well known but of a similar importance in tracking the erosion of trust between the public and the media, the public and government, and the public and the intelligentsia, is the Quiz Show scandal of the 1950s.
Director Robert Redford lays out a strong case that the growth of cynicism toward public institutions began not just with the rebellion of the 1960s. It began with a simple Quiz Show called 21. The game was rigged. Though the venerable NBC network and uber-rich sponsor company Geritol, presented the show as a legitimate competition between everyday folks who happened to be remarkably well versed at memorizing facts, the shows were, in fact, scripted so that certain people would win. When ratings started to fall, that person would lose and be replaced by someone who might raise the ratings once more.
Quiz shows enthralled an America that was very early into the honeymoon phase when it came to television. It was an innocent time when people wanted to believe they could trust the people whose faces were beamed into their home everyday. People like Jack Berry (Christopher McDonald), the well dressed and affable host of 21 who carried a public trust, not unlike a newsman. His integrity and that of the show mattered to the public. The show even played that integrity as a marketing gimmick.
In the opening moments of Quiz Show we open on a bank where a safe deposit box is being opened. Armed guards remove a package. One guard passes the package to another who climbs inside of an armored car. That armored car then receives a police escort to 30 Rockefeller Center, the television home of NBC and the quiz show, 21. Inside the package being carried, again, by armed guards, are the vaunted questions, a guarded secret even from host Jack Berry. 21 traded on the supposed integrity of the game.
Thus, when we are later informed that the whole thing was rigged, it hits a little harder. It's a brilliant opening because it places a supreme importance on the integrity of the game while also shining a light on the cynical showbiz artifice of it all. Redford immediately has in his grasp as a director and we are in fully for him to deconstruct this artificial world via his tremendous characters and the remarkable actors who embody them, especially the wildly talented Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren, the golden boy of the quiz show world of the 1950s.
But before we get to Charles Van Doren, his good looks, manners, and breeding, we first meet Herb Stempel, a schlub from Brooklyn who is the current champion of 21 as we join the story. Herb is just the kind of everyman that audiences go for, a deeply average man able to achieve something beyond his station. Herb is the kind of underdog type that makes your audience think: 'If this guy can do it, maybe there is a chance I can do it.' That template however, only works for so long and when Herb's ratings begin to decline, it's time to look for the next golden goose.
That's when kismet strikes as Charles Van Doren happens to be at 30 Rockfeller Center to try out for a quiz show. While auditioning, Van Doren is spotted by Dan Enright, the producer of 21. In Van Doren, with his movie star profile and professorial credibility, he sees a movie star, someone the public will look up to and want to watch every week on their TV. It doesn't take Enright and his partner, Freedman (Hank Azaria), long to grab up Van Doren and pitch him on being on 21. Ah, but it's not just being on 21, it's winning on 21. The feeling out process indicates at least a little willingness on Van Doren's part to be part of the con that is 21.
Naturally, Herb Stempel doesn't take losing well. After taking a dive against Van Doren, Herb believes he's going to get placed on another show. When that doesn't happen he sets in motion a series of events that will eventually lift the veil on 21 while even more cynically, changing nothing about the practice of deceiving the public. Caught in the middle of it all is Charles Van Doren, a weak man but not a bad person, merely a man who longed for a spotlight of his own while he stood in the shadow of his beloved and respected father, Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield).
Yes, Charles Van Doren deceived the public but so did NBC, Dan Enright, Jack Berry and Geritol, all of whom escaped the Quiz Show scandal with not so much as a scratch. Van Doren should not have agreed to cheat but he should not have been the scapegoat for the entirety of the scandal. Instead of NBC having to change their business practices, Dan Enright walking away in shame, or Geritol having to admit they rigged the game, all of the shame and scorn fell on Charles Van Doren.
That said, Charles Van Doren has a huge role to play in the filtering down of cynicism and mistrust through the last several decades. A respected intellectual caught cheating to gain fame, Van Doren soured the public on intellectuals for years to come. Suddenly experts are no longer to be trusted, they may just be getting the answers from someone or lying for their own shot at fame. Charles Van Doren is the first crack in a dam that burst several years ago with the election of Donald Trump and his attacks on anyone who has ever carried the mantel of actually knowing something.
Quiz Show is a near perfect time capsule of the slow burn toward unending mistrust, angst, and suspicion that has haunted subsequent generations. Yes, Watergate, Vietnam, the war in Iraq, all have much larger and more obvious roles to play, but the game show scandal of the 50s and the downfall of Charles Van Doren are an earlier flashpoint in the history of our declining opinions regarding institutions and public figures. Robert Redford and Quiz Show capture this moment perfectly, understatedly placing the quiz show scandal into place as one of those flashpoints in American history that needed to be documented in just this way.
The history of American cynicism is not linked to any one incident. It was a series of incidents that eroded our confidence in leaders, experts, and institutions. We had hoped that perhaps catching the bad guys, bringing them to justice, would be the cleanse we'd all need in order to return to the status quo but that's not how trauma works. And make no mistake about it, each of the blows taken to the public trust was traumatic.
Each blow left a lasting mark on the country. It's left generation after generation unmoored and allowed corruption to fester. When we are unable to trust our institutions we're no longer surprised when our trust is violated. Soon, the violation of our collective trust becomes the norm and the cynical hole that we've dug for ourselves begins to collapse around us. That's a bloviating way of saying, I love Quiz Show and how it captures one of many flashpoints in the history of American cynicism.
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