Quiz Show

Quiz Show (1994)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: John Torturro, Ralph Fiennes, David Paymer, Hank Azaria
Extras: Theatrical Trailer

For the longest time I wanted to see "Quiz Show", a film by Robert Redford, but for some reason I never had the chance to. Until now that is, because now Buena Vista Home Video has released the film on DVD, and eagerly I decided to give this disc a close-up look.

"Quiz Show" is based on real events, which in turn have been chronicled in Richard Goodwin’s book "Remembering America". The story revolves around a scandal that surrounded a TV quiz show by the name of "Twenty-One" in the late fifties, in which its was uncovered that the show was actually rigged and preferred candidates were fed the questions and answers before the show. As most of you certainly know, the show has only recently been re-established on US television.

The film starts with Herbie Stempel (John Torturro) defending his title on the quiz show "Twenty-One". As countless times before he succeeds and moves on into the next round, accumulating more and more money on his game account. Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a young aspiring teacher at Columbia University, is watching the show and with his universal trivia knowledge, he decides to apply as a candidate for a similar, albeit easier show. Van Doren is coming from a wealthy and famous family and when the producers of the TV show recognize him, they propose a plan.

Herbie Stempel had always been taught the answers to his questions on the TV show so that he could continually win. It increased the appeal of the show to have the same winner over and over again, and Stempel’s seemingly impressive knowledge helped the ratings as well as selling the show’s sponsor’s products. Lately he had reached a plateau however and no growth was in sight. People seemingly got tired of Stempel who got increasingly obnoxious with every show, and in Van Doren producers Dan Enright (David Paymer ) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) saw their next vehicle to higher ratings and better profits.

A clean cut, charismatic Columbia University professor could help lift the show’s intellectual appeal and help inspire the masses. Despite Van Doren’s wish to win over Stempel in a fair quiz, they decide to replace Stempel and force him to answer an important question knowingly incorrectly to make Van Doren the new champion. For weeks Van Doren soars as the champion of "Twenty-One" while a very frustrated Herbie Stempel is trying to uncover the TV shows practices without success. Until one day, Richard "Dick" Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a Government attorney with a suspicion of fraud, shows up on his doorstep to hear the whole story about"Twnety-One".

"Quiz Show" is Robert Redford’s fourth film as a director and once again, it is a very unique film. Not only does it manage to conjure up a bit of nostalgia, it also touches upon some questions that are as hot today as they were some forty years ago. Although certainly no one would assume a TV show breaks the law when faking reality or feeding answers to their candidates, the imminent question remains, how much of what we see on TV is real, and how low is the inhibition level of TV producers in favor of higher ratings? Too often have we witnessed how TV has invaded people’s privacy and ventured into legal gray areas without the slightest hesitation to trust them. And still, there is this bit of enigma remaining, as to how much of what we see is real and how much is fabricated for our entertainment purposes.

Carefully, Redford probes into this notion as we watch Goodwin sniff the floor for information. Intrigued and full of admiration for Van Doren, the attorney is hesitant to believe the show is rigged on one hand, but has plenty of evidence to know it is really happening on the other. Although we know from the beginning of the film that the show is rigged, the movie always remains gripping as we follow Goodwin’s investigations. He uncovers intimate questions about people’s personalities, and for example why a well-brought up, intelligent man allows others to turn him into a manipulated ham for their purpose.

"Quiz Show" is beautifully acted by the entire cast. John Torturro is great as the nerdy looser who is eaten up by his frustration and the disillusion of being unimportant after being the glamorous star of the hottest show on TV. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant, as the charismatic academic with a soft aura that distracts everyone from the fact that he’s a cheater. His looks, his mannerisms and the way he speaks gloss over the fact even to the point that the government attorney is willing to protect him. Even the viewer is sympathizing with him at all times despite the fact that we know all the way that he has been corrupted.

There are countless other great performances in this movie from Rob Morrow as the fascinated attorney, Mira Sorvino in a small part as his wife, all the way to directors Martin Scorsese and Barry Levinson in nice little parts. In the supporting cast, especially Paul Scofield stands out as Van Doren’s father, a man of intellect, principles and a heart.

Buena Vista Home Video’s DVD release of "Quiz Show" is a bare-bones disc, as most of their other releases. No extras, other than an obligatory theatrical trailer, can be found on the disc. The release contains a non-<$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer, restoring the movie’s original theatrical 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio. "Quiz Show" has a strong 50s look and feel with warm colors throughout, which is enhanced by Michael Ballhaus’ extraordinary camera work. Unfortunately signs of over-enhancement are visible throughout the film, resulting in edges that are sometimes unnaturally sharp. The disc also contains noticeable compression artifacts, mostly in the form of <$pixelation,pixelation>.
Fortunately these artifacts never get really distracting and are rather subtle, and as such don’t affect the overall appearance of the film too much. The DVD faithfully renders the film’s warm colors and produces very natural looking skin tones.

The disc contains English and French language tracks in <$DS,Dolby Surround>. They are well balanced, and perfectly matching the subject matter of the film not overly aggressive. They establish a nice ambience for the film to give it authenticity and life. Mark Isham’s music score is also very well integrated in the mix, balancing today’s dramatic needs for a score while maintaining a solid contemporary feel that goes with the film. Dialog is very well produced and always understandable.

After years of waiting to finally get to see this film, I was very impressed with "Quiz Show" and it surpassed what I hoped it would be like. It is look behind the façade of TV business during a time when people still had faith in the medium and the people who represented it. It is a notion we have long lost and this nostalgic feeling is nicely captured while taking us on an exploration to scrutinize ethics, social pressures and ultimately the power of success. It is a truly impressive and inspired film that you should give a shot some time.