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What's the story?
QUIZ SHOW is based on a true story taking place in the early days of television. One of the most popular and successful program formats was the quiz show, in which contestants competed for huge cash prizes by answering questions. Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) was a member of one of America's most distinguished literary families, and he became an immensely popular contestant on Twenty-One. When it turned out that the quiz shows were fixed, and that contestants were supplied with the answers by the shows' producers, Van Doren became the symbol of betrayal. John Turturro plays another contestant, Herb Stempel, and Rob Morrow plays congressional staff investigator Dick Goodwin.
Is it any good?
This is an outstanding drama that provides an excellent opportunity for examining the way that people make moral choices. Stempel cheats because he wants to be accepted and respected, and because he believes that is the way the world works. Nevertheless, he is outraged and bitter when he finds that he himself has been cheated; the producer has no intention of living up to his promise to find him a job in television. Meanwhile, when first presented with the option of cheating, Van Doren reflects ("I'm just wondering what Kant would make of this"), and then refuses. Once on the program, however, he is given a question he had answered correctly in his interview. At that moment, what is he thinking? What moral calculus goes through his mind? Is this the decision to cheat, or is that a separate decision, later?
In Quiz Show's most painful scene, Van Doren must tell his father what he has done. Why did he do it? The movie suggests that it was in part a way to establish himself as independently successful, out of the shadow of his parents and uncle. He enjoyed the fame and the money. He argues that no one is being hurt by it. Goodwin, on the other hand, sees that it's wrong, and never for a moment hesitates when the producer tries to buy him off. Yet, as Goodwin's wife points out, he makes his own moral compromises when he tries to protect Van Doren. In part, he does it because he is after those he considers the real culprits. But in part he does it because he likes Van Doren, and because as much as he takes pride in being first in his class at Harvard, some part of him still thinks that the Van Dorens are better than he is. Some kids won't be able to sit through the talkiness of this movie. But for those that do, you'll all be richly rewarded with plenty to discuss on morals, choices, class, big business, the early days of TV, and so much more.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about cheating and lying, and how it affected the characters in Quiz Show. Why did Stempel agree to cheat? Why did he tell the truth to the investigators? Why did Van Doren cheat?
What were some of the feelings Van Doren had about his parents? How can you tell? In what ways was Goodwin like Stempel? In what ways was he like Van Doren? Why was Goodwin intimidated by the Van Dorens?
Who was responsible for the "quiz show scandals?" Was the outcome fair? Who should have been punished, and how?
- In theaters: January 1, 1994
- On DVD or streaming: September 7, 1999
- Cast: John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow
- Director: Robert Redford
- Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Character strengths: Integrity, Self-control
- Run time: 133 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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