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AMERICA'S QUIZLINGS

In the great scheme of evil--where the schemers always out-think the victims--the TV quiz-show scandals of the 1950s are minor infractions. In view of later events like Watergate, Iran-Contra or the O.J. Simpson case, we Americans can hardly be expected to get all worked up about a couple of TV producers who rigged the deck for high ratings almost forty years ago.

The republic survived. No one came home in a body bag. The networks didn't even banish quiz shows or their supercilious hosts. Just try to stomach the profound idiocy of Alex Trebek some evening at six.

But if you're Robert Redford--environmentalist, defender of Native American rights and staunch moralist--you can't help finding in the shenanigans of crooked contestant Charles Van Doren and Twenty-One the symbolic moment when America "lost its innocence" and started down the road to hell. Since he all but junked his acting career, Redford has become one of those Hollywood mediocrities, plumped up with wealth and celebrity, who always insist that we listen to their pronouncements on politics, art and sin. Quiz Show is both his tour of the underworld and his Book of Virtues. Preacher Bob is in full cry here.

Luckily, this is also a relentlessly entertaining movie. Little matter that it can't carry all the freight about cultural fraud and class warfare its makers would like.

Ralph Fiennes, the murderous death-camp commandant in Schindler's List, changes gears radically as the pivotal Van Doren. A Columbia professor and the scion of an elite intellectual family, young Charles was ideal casting for NBC's bogus weekly melodrama of the mind. With his handsomely furrowed brow and impeccable patrician manners, he quickly became the exemplary American egghead, the highest, best hope of a nation facing imagined challenges around the globe. While the applause meter rose, the network chieftains conspired to keep his face--and his brain--before the public for ten weeks.

Fiennes couldn't be better in Quiz Show. His Charlie is bright and attractive in a stock, white-bread kind of way and, when the need arises, just conscience-stricken enough to suggest real pathos. Even as the conspirators feed him the right answers and coach him in the art of sweating it, we see that he's not just the instrument of power but its victim as well.

Not surprisingly, he collides with his opposite. The whistle-blower at Twenty-One, it turned out, was one Herbert Stempel, a lumpy, whining striver from Queens who preceded Van Doren on the popular program and later rebelled--not over some question of immorality but over the fact that he was the one ordered to take a dive for the WASP cover boy. John Turturro, who's already proved himself the most hysterical actor in movies in Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing, goes ballistic with a screeching, scenery-chomping caricature of "Jewish neurosis" and sheer paranoia. If the Anti-Defamation League doesn't get up in arms, I'll be surprised.

Director Redford got the idea for his movie from a chapter about the TV scandals in Richard N. Goodwin's "Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties." But he and screenwriter Paul Attanasio have taken some of the usual liberties with the facts. In reality, the quiz-show con games were exposed (The $64,000 Question was similarly denuded) mostly by the New York District Attorney's office. But Quiz Show gives all the credit to author Goodwin (Rob Morrow), then a young congressional investigator. This ploy is almost as neat as the theatrical machinations of Twenty-One's perpetrators, but it works, in part. Why clutter the stage with a lot of peons when one Eliot Ness will do?

The primacy of the Goodwin character, unfortunately, also gives Redford the chance to philosophize on the American social structure of the Fifties. He may be fervid in his mission ("We're going to put television on trial!" he shouts), but Goodwin, a Harvard-educated Jew, is also seduced by Van Doren's WASP charms and his easy confidence. As Goodwin is subjected to the sweaty bellowing of Turturro's Herbie Stempel and the cool, cerebral anxiety of Fiennes's Van Doren, there's only one choice of personality he can make. We're stuck with it, too.

The minor players are splendid. Paul Scofield is regal (and suitably outraged) as Charlie's father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Van Doren; David Paymer is perfect as producer Dan Enright, chief author of the fraud, and Christopher McDonald is the ideal Twenty-One host, Jack Barry, an empty suit inflated with the same synthetic self-importance his game show descendants radiate today.

Except for the overwrought Turturro, in fact, the entire cast is a pleasure to watch, and this fast, engaging movie ably captures the sleazy antics of salesmen setting out for uncharted territory--a mass-media universe full of powers and clout that could hardly be imagined at the time.

On the other hand, Redford, ever the pious guardian of our mores, takes the whole thing a little too seriously, as if he's set out to plant another cultural milestone along the road. Inevitably, you get the uncomfortable feeling that he believes Quiz Show is some kind of tragedy. That doesn't keep us from wallowing in the farce.

 
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