Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994) is a biographical drama based on Richard N. Goodwin’s controversial book from 1988, Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties. The film’s genre itself is a Robert Redford trademark: a based-on-a-true-story adaptation that takes on a political issue. The story arises from the controversy surrounding the 1960s quiz show, Twenty One. An obsessive, lower-class, and socially awkward contestant, Herbie Stemple (John Turturro) has been on the show for weeks when producers Mr. Enright and Mr. Freedman (David Paymer and Hank Azaria) “request” that Herbie step down from the champion’s chair so that a new, fresh-faced winner (Ralph Fiennes) can bring up the show’s ratings. Herbie agrees, but doesn’t let it go. When the young and confident investigator Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow) begins looking into the controversy, the show’s producers do everything they can to keep Herbie quiet.
Quiz Show has quite a cast; other supporting actors include Paul Scofield (Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this role), Christopher McDonald, and even Martin Scorsese. This handful of noteworthy men fits another of Redford’s trademarks: male character- driven stories. Each man in the story has his own battle to fight and his own lesson to learn; these conflicts drive the story. As Goodwin tries to uncover the truth, his man vs. society (or man vs. institution) conflict takes the spotlight. But Charles Van Doren (the suave literature professor who takes Herbie’s place on the show) and Herbie deal with just as interesting man vs. self conflicts that reflect classic androcentric tales. Herbie wants to clear his reputation but must learn to fulfill the duties to his family, while Charles struggles to be true to himself and his father. Quiz Show is definitely a character-focused film, exploring the morality of individual people.
With several character arcs shaping the story, it took a while to really get to know each character. However, the pace eventually evened out once Richard began investigating the case and that main conflict got rolling. As the film shifted between Richard, Herbie, and Charles, information was presented in a steady way that the audience could keep up with. And, since the audience knew everything even when the characters didn’t, it allowed me to be more emotionally involved with the story. As I watched, I eagerly hoped that the truth would be revealed to all the characters and that the right thing could be done. This emotional involvement especially helped the film to succeed.
One technical achievement of Quiz Show is its sound design. Suspense was achieved with highlighted sound effects like heavy breathing and silence. The score was interesting as well, but there was a careful balance between music and silence.
The use of male character conflicts set Quiz Show apart as a male-targeted film, although I (as a female) was still intrigued. Although the film doesn’t dive deep into conspiracy theory or anything like that, those who enjoy stories about uncovering scandals and characters fighting corruption will appreciate this movie. The purpose of the film is to show how corrupt the entertainment business can be, but also to show that truth isn’t always uncovered, even after hard fought battles. With that more realistic perspective on life, the difference between realism and “razzle-dazzle” were also important themes of the film. With interwoven conflicts, solid acting, and an intriguing story, Quiz Show ultimately succeeds.