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Film: Quiz Show
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 Show 21 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.
  • American Dream: Flavor two.
  • 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.
  • The Beautiful Elite: The Van Dorens.
  • Big Applesauce
  • Coincidental Broadcast: Of the radio kind; when Goodwin is trying out a brand-new Chrysler, he turns on the radio just when the announcer is informing listeners the Russians have launched Sputnik.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Enright and Freedman. Also implied with NBC President Robert Kinter and Geritol executive Martin Rittenhome.
  • The Danza: Martin Scorsese as Martin Rittenhome, especially as the latter is fictitious.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Almost everyone.
  • Description Porn: That car in the opening scene.
  • 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.
  • The Fifties
  • From a Certain Point of View: The endless justifications various characters offer for the cheating.
  • Hauled Before A Senate Subcommittee
  • Historical-Domain Character
  • 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.
  • Jews Love to Argue: The Stempels.
  • Keeping Secrets Sucks: Take a drink every time Ralph Fiennes stresses out.
  • 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.
  • Product Placement: Geritol. Geritol EVERYWHERE.
  • Real Person Cameo: The real Stempel can be seen playing a different contestant being interviewed during the Congressional investigation.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Congressman Derounian to Van Doren following his confession.
    • 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.
  • Show Within a Show: Twenty-One.
  • Smug Snake: The executives, and especially Martin Scorsese's character.
  • Stop Being Stereotypical: It's never stated outright, but implied that this is part of Goodwin's discomfort with Herb Stempel (both are Jewish).
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Van Doren knows denying that he cheated before he's been accused will just make him look guiltier...and then does it anyway, leading Goodwin to surmise that at this point, he wants to get caught.
  • Those Two Guys: Enright and Freedman.
  • Vertigo Effect: When Van Doren decides to take a fall.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Intentional, as noted by The Other Wiki's article on the film, although several liberties aren't listed there:
    • Stempel is presented as an initially popular contestant who's made to take a dive when the sponsor 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 unlikeable 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 was actually played out over two episodes of Twenty One, with the first episode 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 did not mutter, "Just oddly familiar," when asked the Halleck question. 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 won.
    • 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, with the former asking Barry and Enright to change the show after its disastrous first episode, to which Enright (without Barry's knowledge) 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 a contestant the sponsor didn't like, but it wasn't Geritol meddling with Twenty One to get rid of Stempel, it was Revlon meddling with The $64,000 Question to get rid of Dr. Joyce Brothers. And it was a failed attempt. The 64k Question wasn't as rigged as Twenty One so instead of ordering Brothers to take a dive, she was just fed 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 answer the final 64k Question. 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", Television 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, the scandals held up as the ultimate proof that television was the lowest form of trash. It wouldn't be until Television's wall-to-wall coverage of the JFK assassination five years later that people would stop using the scandals as a means to bash Television.
  • 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: "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.
  • What You Are in the Dark
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Goodwin, at first.

Pulp FictionAcademy AwardThe Shawshank Redemption
Revolutionary RoadThe FiftiesCapote
Pulp FictionFilms of the 1990sThe Radioland Murders

alternative title(s): Quiz Show
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