In a pivotal scene toward the end of Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s masterpiece about television’s first blemish, one character relates a story to another. He tells of his uncle’s confession to his wife about an 80-year-old affair.
The nephew said he said: “Why’d you tell her? You got away with it.” His uncle replied, “It was the getting-away-with-it part I couldn’t live with.”
Ethics, morals, truth, honesty and integrity can be boring at times. But throughout Quiz Show, they hit harder than any Sunday sermon delivered by John Ashcroft himself.
Quiz Show exposes the underbelly of television at its inception. In 1957, quiz shows (before Jeopardy and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) were all the rage, and millions of Americans tuned in to the new invention in their living rooms to see, and root for, contestants. Money changed hands — networks got advertising, advertisers got viewers, contestants got rich — and everyone was entertained.
The only problem was that some of the shows were fixed.
But that’s not what 1994’s Quiz Show is about. It’s not about the congressional subcommittee that brought the scandal of Twenty-One to the public’s attention or the ruthless NBC execs who scammed the American public.
Rather, like all good stories, the film focuses on people — namely, an ambitious investigator and an overwhelmed intellectual — Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) and Charles Van Doran (Ralph Fiennes) — and their relationship behind the limelight of television studios and congressional hearings.
But, the film also examines an ordinary man’s willingness to succumb to instant celebrity and thousands of dollars. Many times, characters ask the question, “What would you do?”
As Dick gets closer to the truth, Charles’ guilt intensifies inside him. Eventually, he bows out of the game show and goes back to teaching at Columbia University. But the whole time, Charles can’t live with the shame.
It’s the getting away with the lie that eats him apart inside. Charles came from one of the foremost literary families, and he was on his way to making a name for himself when he got involved in a deception to bamboozle the viewing public. His father even relates cheating on a quiz show to plagiarizing a comic strip.
However, the film still begs the question, “What would you do?” Dick tells Charles there’s no way he’d do it.
The third leg of the tripod plot involves Herb Stempel (John Turturro), the man whom Charles “beat” on the show and ran his mouth once he realized he wasn’t going to get anything from NBC for taking a dive on national TV.
So, here are three characters — two who accepted money for answering questions they already knew and one who tried to find out why — who are designed to teach a moral to their audience about doing the right thing even when there are countless reasons to go down the wrong path.
Sometimes, films that spend too much time preaching forget to entertain. Other times, an extremely entertaining film, such as Quiz Show, can also teach a lesson about history and show you that you have the choice not to repeat it.
Contact Will Albritton at firstname.lastname@example.org