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.
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:
- Actually Pretty Funny: When Goodwin tensely confronts Enright with concrete proof that Twenty One was rigged, Enright tries to bribe Goodwin by offering him a place on a panel show. Goodwin genuinely seems to think it's funny beyond looking amazed that Enright would go that far.
- A real life example: Charles Van Doren admitted in a 2008 New Yorker article that he enjoyed Turturros performance as Stempel, and laughed out loud when Turturro as Stempel referred to him as "Charles Van Fucking Moron".
- All for Nothing: Goodwin's investigation. He seems to realize at the end of the film that all he's done is have Van Doren and Stempel raked over the coals, while his efforts to "get television" end in failure after Enright and Freedman take the fall for NBC and Geritol. Made worse by the fact that they bounce back anyway.
- Armor-Piercing Question: It draws an incorrect conclusion from the evidence, but it still shakes Herb up:Congressman: Charles Van Doren is a professor at Columbia University. A Masters degree in astrophysics. A Ph.D. in literature. Hails from one of the most prominent intellectual families in this country. Isn't it just possible, Mr Stempel, that you got the answers and he didn't?
- Van Doren gets his own when Dave Garroway asks him how he thinks "Honest Abe" Lincoln would do on a quiz show.
- Freedman poses one in his confession, when he asks, in all honesty, who did the scandal hurt - the public were watching for the entertainment value.
- 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.
- Avoid the Dreaded G Rating: The film almost surely would have received a PG rating, if not for a single use of the F-word (and then the same use is repeated later in an in-universe recording, just to make sure).
- The Beautiful Elite: The Van Dorens.
- Big Applesauce: "Queens is not New York."
- Book-Ends: The movie opens with a hopeful, 1950s version of "Mack the Knife" by Bobby Darin. It closes with a slow, sad version of "Mack the Knife" by Lyle Lovett.
- By "No", I Mean "Yes": Rittenhome responds to Goodwin asking if he just admitted to knowing about the rigging by saying that he's admitting to nothing, that would be silly. He then speaks in hypotheticals on why the games would be rigged.
- The Cameo: Martin Scorsese plays Geritol CEO Martin Rittenhome.
- Ethan Hawke can be seen very briefly as one of Mark Van Doren's students.
- Can't Get in Trouble for Nuthin': Charles Van Doren in several instances.
Dick Goodwin I want to think the world of you Charlie. Everyone does. That's your curse.
- Dick Goodwin bends over backwards to try to prevent getting Van Doren into trouble for his role in the show, refusing to call him as a witness until he is forced to.
- As soon as Van Doren's guilt and apprehension get the better of him, he fakes getting a question wrong just so he can get bumped off the show, but the network gives him a permanent spot on another show at a huge salary.
- When he confesses his guilt to his father, Mark Van Doren is upset because it brings shame on the family name, but he still feels protective and supportive of his son.
- When he shows up to testify and confesses, he gets the Congressmen queueing up to compliment him on how "soul-searching" his confession was. When one of them finally tells the others that he shouldn't be fawned over for just telling the truth, Van Doren looks relieved that someone has finally told him off.
- Chekhov's Gun: Goodwin sees Charles and his father discussing the Belgian royal dynasty. Soon enough, Charles is actually asked about them on the show and throws the question, giving Goodwin concrete proof that something's fishy.
- 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.
- Contrived Coincidence: Goodwin gets his smoking gun when Van Doren just happens to throw a question on the show about the then Belgian king Bauduin whom Goodwin had heard him talking about with his family.
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: Enright and Freedman. Also implied with NBC President Robert Kinter and Geritol executive Martin Rittenhome.
- Deadpan Snarker: Almost everyone.
- Deception Noncompliance: Van Doren (who is being given answers in advance by the producers of the show) invokes a Suspiciously Specific Denial to ensure that the scheme comes to a halt. He wasn't personally accused at the time, so Goodwin realizes that there's no reason for him to have made a point of denying things unless he was trying to get investigated.Goodwin: I said to myself, "Why would he do this? He knows I'll come after him." And then it occurred to me: he knows I'll come after him.
- 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.)
- Double Standard: The committee's castigation of Van Doren is based on this. Van Doren is told that "a man of [his] intelligence" shouldn't be lauded just for coming forward and publicly admitting his mistakes, the implication being that a smart man like Van Doren should've known not to get into a situation like this in the first place. Apparently, moral/ethical transgressions are more severe when it's a smart person making them. Or something.
- However, the first few Congressmen grovellingly congratulate Van Doren, not for telling the truth but for the eloquence of his confession that he lied. This is broken by a Congressman annoyed with the bullshit, who points out to Van Doren that he shouldn't be fawned over for telling the truth. note
- 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. TV marches on relatively unexamined, and worst, it's strongly implied that this was the last time in the United States that being intelligent was a heroic trait. 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.
- Fridge Logic: Invoked by Stempel, who is annoyed at the mere idea that a shlubby outer-borough everyman like him would not know that a film about a shlubby outer-borough everyman won the Oscar. Leads to an Anything but That! moment.
- From a Certain Point of View: The endless justifications various characters offer for the cheating.
- Gentleman and a Scholar: Well-groomed, well-educated, well-to-do Charles, whose good looks and social graces make him a better fit for television than nerdy Stempel
- Hauled Before A Senate Subcommittee: All the major characters eventually testify before the committee - although it's in the House, not the Senate.
- Green-Eyed Monster: Stempel. He spends the entire movie furious at the love and adoration that Charles receives, being willing to out himself as a cheater if it means being able take Charles down with him. He seems to regret how much damage his vindictiveness does by the end of the film.
- Historical Domain Character: The players in the Quiz show scandal are relatively obscure now, but they were quite famous during the scandal. Most of the major characters are based on real people.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: There's no evidence that NBC president Robert Kintner or anybody at Geritol knew anything about the rigging of Twenty-One. 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.
- Hollywood New England: You could stand up a coffee spoon in Rob Morrow's Boston accent.
- The Van Doren family and their intellectual friends are the upper-class Western Mass variant, because they really were like that.
- Ignored Confession: When Van Doren admits in public, at the committee hearings, that he was cheating all along, instead of telling him off, the committee start to compliment him on the excellence of his confession and how wonderful it was, until one of them brutally intervenes to point out that he shouldn't be paid such fulsome compliments for just telling the truth.
- Ironic Echo: Goodwin coaching Stempel on how to answer the questions at the subcommittee hearing looked astoundingly similar to how Stempel and Van Doren were taught how to answer the questions of the rigged quiz show.
- Jews Love to Argue: The Stempels. Goodwin, an upper-class Jew who seems to aspire to be a WASP, finds it nauseating; his wife calls him out on it.
- Just Here for Godzilla: Rittenhome, played by Martin Scorsese, quietly accuses the show's audience of this in-universe, with hints that he finds the moral outrage around the show's rigging to be hypocritical in the extreme."The audience didn't tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money."
- Karma Houdini: The senior bosses of NBC and Geritol. In the end Goodwin watches as Enright and Freedman take full responsibility for rigging the show. This applies to them as well, since they face very little repercussion and go on to have successful media careers.
- 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 (the actual winner) so much he saw it three timesnote ; 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.
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 the quiz show scandals were taking place. Many commentators in The '50s 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.
- No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: No one profits from exposing the scandal, while there is Karma Houdini all around.
- 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 EVERYWHERE, but this isn't too surprising since they sponsored Twenty-One at the time.
- Announced as the sponsor of Twenty One.
- Stempel does a (maybe) impromptu plug while being introduced on the show.
- The product name is prominently shown on the set.
- Host Jack Barry steps away from the game to do a commercial for it.
- Of course, off-set, Stempel sneers at the claim that Geritol "cures 'tired blood'".note
- 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).
- Boomerang Bigot: Goodwin's wife accuses him of this, saying he's embarrassed to be 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.
- Take That, Audience!: The last shot of the film, which plays under the credits, is a slo-mo of a studio audience laughing. In other words, it's all your fault.
- Those Two Guys: Enright and Freedman.
- Touché: When Charles Van Doren and Dick Goodwin are having lunch at Van Doren's club, and Van Doren's father Mark joins them, Mark has a low opinion of Dick at first (since he has contempt for Washington D.C.), until Dick talks about the origin of the Reuben sandwich (the special, which Dick is having for lunch), and points out while there are a lot of sandwiches in the club, there aren't a lot of Reubens (Jewish people). Mark chuckles at this and says, "Touche", as a way of indicating he's accepted Dick.
- 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 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.
- Van Doren is shown to be a bachelor, with a suggested interest in quiz shows. In reality, he was engaged and didn't even have a television set - his meeting with producer Albert Freedman was through a mutual friend, and it was Freedman who suggested Van Doren appear on television.
- The rigged on-air rivalry between Stempel and Van Doren actually took place over two episodes (aired November 28 and December 5, 1956), 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 game; if either did, the player in the lead immediately won).
- Van Doren is shown to get a job with The Today Show immediately after losing to Vivienne Nearing on March 11, 1957. While he was offered a three-year contract with NBC, the network initially didn't know what to do with him, giving him a writing role on the Sunday-afternoon cultural show Wide Wide World, which led to Dave Garroway (who hosted both it and Today) inviting Van Doren to join Today.
- The clip of James Snodgrass deliberately getting the Emily Dickinson answer correct shows 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 Geritol 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. Further, as noted above under "Historical Villain Upgrade", Martin Rittenhome never existed. (He is, however, loosely based on Charles Revson, CEO of Revlon, who was heavily implicated in the rigging of their own sponsored quiz show, The $64,000 Question.)
- As for NBC, network president Robert E. Kintner actually canned Twenty-One when he found out about the rigging and testified to Congress that he and other NBC staffers were just as much victims of the rigging as the viewers were, and that he and other NBC executives were working to wrest control of programming and production from the sponsors. note
- The film ignores the rigging of contemporary quizzes Tic-Tac-Dough, The $64,000 Question, The $64,000 Challenge, and Dotto. Dotto's absence is especially notable, since it was 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 miss. 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. note
- Richard Goodwin co-produced the film, which was an adaptation of his book Remembering America. Contrary to the film's depiction of him, Goodwin actually had relatively little to do with the investigations, making this a particularly glaring Historical Hero Upgrade. It was a series of investigative exposés by the New York Post's reporter Dave Gelman that exposed the scandal and brought them to national attention.
- 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 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 coverage of John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963 that people would stop using the scandals as a means to bash the medium.
- Viewers Are Morons: In-universe. Rittenhome makes it clear to Goodwin he's not intimidated by the prospect of being exposed, because nobody 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.
- Vomit Indiscretion Shot: When Goodwin is trying to prepare Stempel for his testimony before Congress, and Stempel is more concerned with nailing Van Doren, Goodwin immediately runs into the bathroom, and the way he's patting his stomach implies he's going to throw up.
- "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. And then they're both told Charlie can't teach anymore due to the scandal.
- Wham Line:
- Stempel pointing out Van Doren's acting skills while being questioned. Everyone in the Committee is shocked, but Stempel (accurately) points out you never pay one boxer to take a dive - you always pay both to make sure it works out.
- Mark Van Doren cuts through all of his son Charles' excuses about how harmless his cheating on a silly quiz show was with "Your name is mine!"
- Wham Shot: Goodwin notices Charles van Doren smiling after losing.
- 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.
- Herb's wife gives him one as well, saying she was one of the "idiots" who admired him for his success on the game show.
- What You Are in the Dark: Van Doren learns the hard way that he can't live with getting away with it.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Goodwin, at first.