Dick Goodwin: You know, I remember five, six years ago my uncle Harold told my aunt about this affair he had. It was a sort of mildly upsetting event in my family. Charles Van Doren: "Mildly"? Goodwin: Well, you have to put it in context. See the thing of it is, the affair was over something like eight years. So I remember asking him, you know, "Why'd you tell her? You got away with it." And I'll never forget what he said: it was the getting away with it part he couldn't live with.
1994 American film directed by Robert Redford, Based on a True Story about the scandal surrounding the rigging of the Game Show21 in The Fifties.Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) is the nerdy, trivia-spouting Jew from Queens who has had a long run as Twenty One's most successful contestant — helped along for an unspecified but significant amount of time by being told the questions and answers in advance. The show's producers, Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), are told by the network, who have been told by the sponsor, that Stempel is no longer a favorite with the viewing public and will have to take a dive... just as Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the handsome, impressive, telegenic son of one of the country's most prominent intellectual families, decides he'd like to take a crack at appearing on a quiz show.As Van Doren finds himself getting deeper and deeper into the deception — and rising to new heights of fame as a result — Stempel looks to vindicate his bruised ego by exposing the show, and Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a young, idealistic congressional lawyer looking for his big break, picks up on the rumors of fixing and decides to investigate.
This film provides examples of:
Abraham Lincoln: Ralph Fiennes' character is named Charles Lincoln Van Doren. Contrast between dishonest Charles and Honest Abe is explicitly shown.
Attention Whore: Stempel who, as Goodwin puts it, "has to be dragged from the spotlight with his teethmarks still on it". For all his insistence that he's The Atoner and his motive for uncovering the show's fraudulence is purely ethical, he seems to revel in the attention with little ability to distinguish between good fame and bad fame. He learns his lesson at the end when he sees what Van Doren's ordeal has done to him.
Reporter: Herb Stempel! Herbie, how about a picture, you and Van Doren together? Stempel: No, no. Christ, look at the guy. Reporter: Come on, the both of you! Stempel: You know what the problem with you bums is? You never leave a guy alone, unless you're leaving him alone.
Don't Make Me Destroy You: Goodwin effectively promises not to subpoena Van Doren if he just keeps his head down during the investigation, because "the contestants are not the villains here." (Sandra thinks this is just because he's so enamored of the Van Doren family.)
Downer Ending: Goodwin fails to "get television" as he'd hoped, since Enright and Freedman take the fall for NBC, rightly expecting that it's nothing they can't bounce back from. Everyone above them lies and gets off scot-free. In the end, all the public disfavor falls on Stempel and Van Doren, who arguably deserve it the least of everyone involved. And TV marches on relatively unexamined. The ending voiceover says it all:
Committee member: ...and you obviously don't think you did anything wrong! Enright: Yes, we did one thing wrong. We were too successful. Committee member: You were too successful? Enright: Those advertising dollars came from somewhere. Why do you think the newspapers and magazines are making such a big thing about this? Committee member: Mr. Enright, you make it sound like you are the victim here. Enright: Well, the sponsor makes out, the network makes out, the contestants see money they probably would never see in a lifetime, and the public is entertained! So who gets hurt? (lingering shot of Charles Van Doren suffering a guilt attack as he gets into his taxi) Committee member: Mr. Freedman, you freely admit that you helped rig these shows. Freedman: Yes, sir. Committee member: "Yes, sir"? That's it? Freedman: Well, sir, I don't know what else to say. Give the public what they want. It's like your business. Committee member: And do you see a need for government regulation in this area? Freedman: (laughing) You know, it's not like the quiz shows are a public utility, sir. It's entertainment. We're not exactly hardened criminals here. We're in show business.
Historical Villain Upgrade: There's no evidence that NBC President Robert Kintner or anybody at Geritol knew anything about the rigging of 21. Martin Rittenhome is fictitious and it's unlikely anyone at Geritol was as smug and far-seeing about this scandal as he's presented to be, especially since nothing like this scandal had ever happened before. Rittenhome's closest Real Life equivalent would be Edward Kletter, the only Geritol executive who testified at the Congressional hearings about the scandal, as Rittenhome is shown to be doing. Kletter's family was not amused.
Large Ham: Stempel may be Jewish, but man he loves to pork it up. He's played by John Turturro, though, so who wouldn't expect that from him?
"Tune in and watch Herb Stempel get fed to the Columbia Lions! Tune in and watch Charles Van Doren eat his first kosher meal, this week on Twenty-One!"
Manipulative Editing: What Enright and Freedman do with the tape of Stempel after he storms into the office.
Motifs: The recurring theme of a contestant losing on a question he not only knows, but invests with some kind of personal significance: Stempel has to pretend he thinks On the Waterfront won the Best Picture Oscar for 1955 when he loved Marty so much he saw it three times; the clip of James Snodgrass' appearance shows him not taking the intended dive on the quote "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul", which he correctly identifies as being by "one of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson" — the implication being that because she was his favorite, he wouldn't sink so low as to deny knowing one of her most famous lines; and Van Doren inadvertently lets Goodwin know he lost on purpose by "forgetting" the name of the king of Belgium, whom Goodwin has heard him talk about. The thread linking these is lampshaded by the dialogue when Goodwin confronts Van Doren about it:
Van Doren: A toast, to "escape — it is the basket in which the heart is caught when down some awful battlement the rest of life is dropt." Goodwin: King Baudouin. (beat) Van Doren: Emily Dickinson, actually.
New Media Are Evil: While Television was definitely no longer new when the movie came out in 1994, it was still relatively new at the time of the quiz show scandals were taking place. Many commentators in The Fifties took this to be the Aesop learned from these scandals. With Goodwin's lament that he was hoping to "get Television, now it looks like Television is going to get us," it seems like the film is siding entirely with those commentators, playing this trope completely straight.
Oh Crap: Stempel when he learns he's going to be cut loose, then when Toby overhears him say he cheated; Enright when Goodwin comes up with a solid case against the show; Van Doren when he hears that Freedman has gone to Mexico, meaning he too is on his own.
Ordered to Cheat: The entire plot. It's unknown whether Stempel started out cheating, but by the time we meet him he's begging Enright to let him play honestly. He can do it — he's a trivia genius. To add insult to injury, he has to lose on an easy pop-culture question he knows in his sleep, on his favorite movie. When Van Doren is taken on as the new contestant, the producers suggest cheating before his first show; he declines, but then they arrange for him to be asked one of the practice questions he got right for his winning points. Under the pressure, it's too much for him to resist, and from there on he goes along.
Two interesting notes about that — first, the three other Congressmen in charge of the committee actually congratulate Van Doren for his confession and subsequent apology, it's that impassioned. And second, it's only after Derounian speaks that the people in attendance applaud. This deliberately confuses the audience as to whether they're cheering for or against Van Doren.
Secret Test of Character: When Enright suggests, off-handedly, that it'll be very hard for Van Doren to beat Stempel, and that maybe they could ask him some questions they knew he knew the answers to, Charles hesitates, then says, "It just doesn't seem right." Then he asks if that was a test, and Enright and Freedman chuckle as if he has seen through their ruse. But actually, it was an open test of character — they want someone willing to cheat.
Serious Business: Stempel is determined most of all that the American public will know that he actually knew Marty won the Best Picture Oscar of 1955.
Stempel is presented as an initially popular contestant who's made to take a dive when Geritol gets sick of him and is convinced the rest of the audience is sick of him too. According to Enright in later interviews, Stempel had always been set up right from the start to be an unlikable but seemingly invincible "bad guy" for the audience to root against until Enright found the perfect "good guy" in Van Doren to defeat him.
The rigged on-air rivalry between Stempel and Van Doren actually took place over two episodes, with the first ending in a draw. All the questions seen in the film are from the second episode, but not in the order they were asked. Van Doren didn't mutter "Just oddly familiar" when asked the Halleck question, either, and it's likely he was already fully complicit in the fix by the time of the second episode.
While Stempel did take the expected dive on the Marty question, they actually went on for another tie game before Van Doren opted to stop (per the rules, at several points in each show Barry asked the players if either wanted to stop the current match; if either did, they won or lost depending on the scores).
The clip of Snodgrass deliberately getting the Emily Dickinson answer correct shows host Jack Barry slightly recoiling, having expected a wrong answer. In reality, Barry knew nothing about the rigging at first but helped to cover it up once he found out.
Neither Geritol nor NBC were involved in the rigging. While the former did ask Barry and Enright to change the show after its disastrous premiere, Enright (without Barry's knowledge) was the one who opted to rig the show.
The film ignores the rigging of Tic-Tac-Dough, The $64,000 Question, The $64,000 Challenge, and most notably Dotto (the popular rigged quiz that actually provided the smoking gun and set off the investigations in 1958).
One of the scandals of the time did involve a sponsor meddling with a quiz show to get rid of contestants the sponsor didn't like, but it was actually Revlon meddling with The $64,000 Question to get rid of Dr. Joyce Brothers by giving her ultra-hard questions the sponsor was confident she'd fail at. Instead, she answered them all correctly and went on to become only the second contestant to successfully win the titular $64,000. Brothers' reputation actually grew when the scandals were exposed since they proved she had won the game fair and square despite the odds being deliberately stacked against her
Dick Goodwin co-produced the film, which was an adaptation of his Remembering America. Contrary to the film's depiction of him, Goodwin actually had relatively little to do with the investigations.
With Goodwin's lament about failing to "get television", TV is depicted as the film's metaphorical Big Bad who pulled off a Karma Houdini. In reality, the scandals were a huge embarrassment for the TV industry for years, being held up as the ultimate proof that television was the lowest form of trash. It wouldn't be until the wall-to-wall TV coverage of the JFK assassination five years later that people would stop using the scandals as a means to bash the medium.
Viewers Are Morons: In-universe. Martin Scorsese as Rittenhome makes it clear to Goodwin he's not intimidated by the prospect of being exposed, because no one cares if the quiz shows are honest or if the contestants aren't really earning their fame and fortune.
Rittenhome: See, the audience didn't tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money.
"Well Done, Son" Guy: Van Doren uses his success to feel as accomplished as the other members of his family, which works on everyone but his father, whom he wants it to work on the most. Mark Van Doren couldn't care less about who wins TV game shows and would be happiest if Charlie just earnestly settled into his teaching, and thus is especially devastated when Charlie tells him he's been cheating the whole time.
What the Hell, Hero?: Toby, when she finds out Herb cheated. Mark Van Doren when Charlie confesses to him. Dick's wife and his colleagues on the congressional subcommittee, asking why he's so reluctant to put Van Doren on the stand.