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'Quiz Show' (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 16, 1994

The real story behind "Quiz Show," director Robert Redford's handsomely mounted spin on the television game show scandal of the 1950s, is ready-made American allegory. When shy college teacher Charles Van Doren returned week after week to answer staggeringly difficult questions on the popular "Twenty-One" show, he became a household idol, an intellectual Leslie Howard for the masses. What TV viewers didn't know was that Van Doren and several other contestants (including reigning champ Herbert Stempel, whom Van Doren initially "defeated") had been fed the answers. Van Doren's furrowed-brow agonizings and Stempel's forehead moppings, as they wracked their brains for the answers, were merely staged for the boob-tube audience.

"Quiz Show," starring Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro and Rob Morrow, takes this ignoble footnote in broadcast history and accelerates with it. As taut, sleek and guiltily comfortable as the classic Chrysler automobile we see at the beginning, "Quiz Show" is built for entertaining road performance. The facts (at least, the dramatically inconvenient ones) are left on the side of the road. Redford retains the emotional engine of the Van Doren affair and drives this baby all the way—presumably—to the bank.

Getting wind of a grand jury investigation into deceitful TV-industry practices, congressional investigator Rob Morrow (as Richard Goodwin, whose book, "Remembering America," fueled Paul Attanasio's script) turns a buried newspaper item into career-

breaking headlines. His dogged snooping takes him to weaselly working-class nerd Turturro (Stempel), who claims the show's producers ordered him to lose to Fiennes. In Turturro's eyes, this is anti-Semitic Machiavellian maneuvering: Jews like him are regularly created to lose to WASP princes. But Morrow (a Jew from Harvard) is emotionally drawn to Fiennes, the affable son and nephew of Pulitzer Prize winners, who invites Morrow into his social circle of Ivy League WASPs. Intending to bring the TV industry and its corporate sponsors to its knees, Morrow tries to keep Fiennes (who consistently denies being fed the answers) out of the spotlight. But justice keeps rearing its inevitable head and Morrow is torn between his newfound friendship with Fiennes and his quest for the truth.

Redford, who had a controlling hand in the script, has not forgotten what "All the President's Men" did for him. " Quiz Show," with Morrow as the intrepid investigator, is a detective story full of familiar Watergate patterns: the late-night poring over lists of potential sources, the confrontations with tight-lipped witnesses at their front doors, the publicly inaccessible authority that needs toppling. At stake are truth, justice and the American way. The scandal is nothing less than the dawning of media manipulation, the tyranny of audience ratings and the smooth marriage of entertainment and information. Artfully constructed and beautifully shot (by cinematographer Michael Ballhouse), "Quiz Show" is easily Redford's best directorial work. As for pretty-boy Fiennes and manic, wild-eyed Turturro, they seem to have been born for these roles.

However, no one should leave this movie thinking they have seen the complete facts. Events that took years have been compressed into weeks, and Goodwin never had the heroic, legal-gumshoe role he enjoys here. His investigation began well after most of the public knew about the scandals. And the depiction of Van Doren as a morally torn individual who's never comfortable with deceiving the people is a sympathetic Hollywood spin on the real counterpart.

In interviews, Redford and company have taken disingenuous refuge behind the poetic-license clause. But when a high-minded movie dips into history to make implications about America and asks to be taken seriously, it cannot escape certain responsibilities. In a film that takes exception to deception (or dramatic manipulation) in the name of entertainment, it's more than a little ironic that "Quiz Show"—as enjoyable as it is—pulls the same kind of wool over your eyes.

Copyright The Washington Post

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