‘Quiz Show’ (1994) should very easily qualify as Robert Redford’s most enterprising directorial venture, and is a film that he would be revered and remembered for, for a very long time to come. Loosely based on the ‘Twenty One’ television scandal that rocked America in the 1950’s, it’s also a film that works wonders with its ostensibly parched material on the bewildering choices that human beings make in their lives!
Producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) of ‘Twenty One’, one of the most popular quiz game shows ever on American television that was aired on NBC in 1958, decide that its time for their reigning champ Herb Stempel (John Turturro) to ‘take a dive’ since his ratings over the past few weeks had started showing symptoms of plateauing. When Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), hailing from an elitist family and working as an instructor at the Columbia University appears for an audition for the ‘Tic-Tac-Dough’, Enright and Freedman spot a gold mine, and invite him over to partake in ‘Twenty One’, usurping Stempel in the process. Van Doren, as had the previous contestants on the show, soon comprehends that the questions and answers on the show are all staged, but with all the money and the sudden rise to national fame, decides to play along until Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a persistent Congressional lawyer drops by to dredge up the truth that underlay the whispers on spurious quiz shows.
The best moment for me in ‘Quiz Show’ would be the one where a petrified Charles Van Doren stealthily walks into his household, and helps himself to a piece of chocolate cake, nestling a bottle of cold milk against his cheeks. His dad Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) walks in, and the renowned senior Professor at Columbia University, draws himself a chair and sits down, amused at his son’s sudden appearance in what appears to be the middle of the night. Charles starts talking of his school days when the prized hour of the day would be the strolling back home to find a piece of cake and some cold milk in the refrigerator. Mark joins in, forking out some cake and nibbling at it, even as letting his son verbalize some very apparent agitation that has been gnawing away at the young man’s heart.
There is also the remarkable scene when Charles walks into the class at the University, just as Mark is about to leave. Very casually he starts voicing his concerns about the ongoing hearing before the House Committee for Legislative Oversight and the senior man, quite oblivious of his son’s misconduct, assures that the hearings are a cakewalk and more a matter of mere procedure that anything else. When Charles finally lets it out that the show had been rigged and that he had as much been a part of the whole mess as anyone else, Mark flops down into a chair, aghast and terribly dismayed. A visibly upset Charles asks his dad if the latter would accompany him to the hearing.
The final scene, when Charles Van Doren appears before the Committee, after having been subpoenaed by Goodwin, is one that brings in an outstanding density on the drama; and with Fiennes at his very best, it also is one of the most pitch perfect scenes in the film. When the producers refuse to testify against the network and the sponsors, Goodwin too – Morrow’s is no less a meritable feat – walks out with the bitter realization that his hopes to ‘get television’, had ended up all in the dust.