Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Quiz Show (1994)

There is a moment in Robert Redford's Quiz Show when after listening to the stumbling confession and rationalizations of his son, a man finally says, "Your name is mine," with such stern conviction that it brings silence to the scene as well as to anyone watching it.

The man is famed poet and literary scholar, Mark Van Doren (as played by Paul Scofield), and the son is Charles Van Doren (as played by Ralph Fiennes), a key figure in the infamous scandal surrounding the 1950s game show "Twenty One."  The scene is the moment Charles finally admits to his father that he was complicit in rigging the game show and begins to ramble on nervously.  He quotes a line from Shakespeare: "An ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own," in an effort to clarify and maybe justify his choices.  But, the elder Van Doren's response crushingly dismantles any self-delusion Charles still clings to and in that moment completely defeats his son in a way only a parent could - with disappointment and shame.

Moments like this one are what elevate this historical drama into an emotionally powerful story about morality and the price of innocence.  The film depicts Charles Van Doren as a young man seeking to step out of the long shadow of his gifted father and find a way to cast his own.  He is seduced by the producers of "Twenty One" with the promise of fame and fortune, and ultimately he pays a high price for his part in the deception.  However, the film only seeks to make Van Doren sympathetic, not exonerate him from his guilt.  In fact, Quiz Show makes a point of showing everyone's culpability in the scandal: Van Doren, the producers, previous contestants, the government, and even the American public.  It is an indictment of not only television and those who control it but the audience who so willingly accepts what they see on it.

That's a very grand notion for which the film aspires.  And, Quiz Show, under Redford's assured direction, makes all its points admirably.  But, the real power of the film are those moments of quiet interaction between various characters, particularly those between Charles, who can't quite bring himself to tell the whole truth, and his father, a man who wants to believe the best about his son.  There is such real pain and heartbreak in those scenes that the statement, "It's only television," a phrase uttered repeatedly throughout the film, seems empty and almost vile when it is finally said for the last time.

When watching these quiet moments in the film, I think of those who wax nostalgic about the good old days while lamenting the current state of affairs.  I am reminded that things like the Red Scare as well as the quiz show scandal still happened in the 1950s, that the decade was in reality just a huge, shiny stone covering a slimy underneath.  Things weren't better back than - they just looked better and no one talked about anything else.  Redford knows this and makes sure it is the foundation on which the film builds.


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