Robert Redford's on a roll. His last two acting stints were big at the box office ("Sneakers" and "Indecent Proposal"). And his most recent directing effort, "A River Runs Through It," was both financially successful and a critical hit.
Now comes "Quiz Show," the fourth film Redford has directed, and he demonstrates a masterful touch. And it certainly helps that he has a brilliant script by Paul Attansio (the TV series "Homicide," the upcoming adaptation of Michael Crichton's "Disclosure").
"Quiz Show's" subject is the television quiz programs of the late 1950s that were proven to be rigged. But there are larger questions being posed here and the most prominent is aimed directly at the moviegoer: "Given the right circumstances, could you be corrupted?"
The film doesn't blanch at naming names as it specifically goes after a show called "Twenty-One," two of its most successful contestants — Herbie Stempel and Charles Van Doren — and the government investigator who suspects corruption, Richard Goodwin.
The film opens in 1957 with a terrific Faustian metaphor, as Goodwin (Rob Morrow) is in a Washington car dealership being given the hard sell by a salesman. Then, the story begins in earnest.
Stempel (John Turturro) is a brilliant contestant who has racked up some $70,000 on "Twenty-One" over several weeks — and he's having the time of his life. But now, the sponsor's representative (Martin Scorsese) feels Stempel has peaked out and the ratings are beginning to flatten. So he tells producer Dan Enright (David Paymer) to get rid of Stempel.
Stempel is told to lose, to deliberately answer a question incorrectly. And we find that he has indeed been receiving answers to questions for the show all along. He's upset, of course — especially when he sees that his successor is to be handsome, educated, charming Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), whose father is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.
Affable and winning, Van Doren is precisely what Geritol and "Twenty-One" want in a winning contestant — and their instincts are correct, the ratings skyrocket.
Soon enough, however, Stempel blows the whistle. At first he's just thought to be a disgruntled loser, but once Goodwin is on the case, feeling somewhat disenfranchised himself, he begins to turn up evidence that all is not well in TV land.
Goodwin is as conflicted over the situation as all of America soon will be, however. He has as much admiration and respect for Van Doren as the rest of the country and doesn't really want to make him a part of the Congressional investigation that ensues.
At one point, speaking in hypotheticals, Goodwin confronts Van Doren and asks, off the record, if he cheated. "Would you do it?" Van Doren asks. And Goodwin can still answer, "No." But Redford and Attansio let us know that Goodwin has indeed been corrupted, by virtue of the prejudices revealed in his own investigation.
Anti-Semitism is also addressed, as Stempel cries that WASPs tend to win over Jewish contestants — and Goodwin's research bears it out. Later, Goodwin's wife accuses him of being an "Uncle Tom of the Jews" because he's being so hard on Stempel and so soft on Van Doren.
Meanwhile, "Quiz Show" manages to work on several levels — as morality play, as mystery, as comedy, as thriller. In fact, it's hard to think of one movie that has succeeded on so many levels since, well, since "All the President's Men."
The performances here are all first-rate, right down to the smallest parts — with special kudos to Paul Scofield, who plays Van Doren's father. In fact, if I have a complaint, it is simply that Fiennes and Morrow's accents tend to wander a bit . . . but, trust me, that's carping.
Few films are so intellectually complicated while still being so commercially entertaining — and if "Quiz Show" doesn't manage to earn a passel of Oscar nominations, there is no justice.
But then, as this movie finally demonstrates . . . often in life, there is no justice.
"Quiz Show" is rated PG-13 for some profanity and vulgar remarks.