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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 3/23/00

Quiz Show
1994 (1999) - Hollywood Pictures (Buena Vista)

review by Greg Suarez of The Digital Bits

Quiz Show Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/B/D-

Specs and Features

133 min., PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:07:04, in chapter 15), Amaray keep case packaging, original theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (30 chapters), languages: English (DD 2.0) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

"Cheating on a quiz show? That's sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip."

One of the best films of the 1990s, Quiz Show overflows with intriguing storytelling, expert performances, and a screenplay that never lets go. Based on a true story, writer Paul Attanasio and director Robert Redford capture the sights, sounds, and excitement America experienced during the dawn of television in the 1950s, by focusing on a scandal surrounding the highly popular quiz show, Twenty-One.

Nerdish bookworm Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) has been the big winner on Geritol-sponsored TV quiz show Twenty One for many weeks, until the show's producer, Dan Enright (David Paymer), and the NBC brass feel that the public is tired of seeing him win. Enright and the network ask Stempel to take a "fall" on the show to relinquish his title. While the public believes that the show's questions are kept secret until Twenty One airs, the producers actually feed the questions and correct answers to the contestants beforehand in order to ensure a winner, and high ratings. In fear of ruining an imagined future in television, Stempel takes the fall.

Stempel has grown used to his celebrity status and feels betrayed by NBC when they ask him to lose to a more popular, more handsome contestant, Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). Van Doren comes from a very respected family of authors and educators (Van Doren, himself, teaches literature at Columbia University), and he quickly becomes even more popular with the public than Stempel. Stempel decides to get even by exposing NBC's deceptive practices to the government. This catches the eye of young, headstrong Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a Congressional investigator who decides to take on the case and bring down television. The lines of justice get blurred when Goodwin must decide who is guilty, who is innocent, and who is a victim of human nature.

The brilliance and intelligence of this script cannot be stressed enough. It is an amazingly rare occurrence when a script is so sharp that it brings the audience into the story so effectively. Too many films have meaningless plots that do not require a modicum of intelligence to comprehend. Not only is the audience required to think about Quiz Show's story, but they are also drawn to make the same judgement calls as the characters.

While Quiz Show is a fascinating story, it's also an acting tour de force. The stellar performances of leads Turturro, Morrow, and Fiennes cannot overshadow the strength of the supporting cast. Paul Scofield plays Mark Van Doren (Charles' very wise father) with brilliance and wit not often seen in Hollywood. Christopher McDonald portrays Twenty-One host Jack Barry with an almost natural precision, and Mira Sorvino (as Sandra Goodwin, Dick's wife) steals every scene she's in. And if you look carefully, there are plenty of cameos from such stars as Illeana Douglas, Ethan Hawke, Griffin Dunne and the great Martin Scorsese (who plays a Geritol executive).

Here's where the kudos stop. This Buena Vista DVD (framed in non-anamorphic widescreen at 1.85:1) is truly disappointing, given the rich hues and beautiful photography of this film. The picture is obviously an NTSC composite transfer that does not look much better than the laserdisc edition. While the colors are generally natural, there is not as much picture detail as a new anamorphic transfer would offer. The picture is hazy, and it is riddled with motion artifacts, moiré, and edge enhancement. The Dolby Surround 2.0 audio is a bit better, however. As much as I would like a 5.1 mix for this film, it really does not warrant it, as the majority of the film is dialog. The swinging' jazz music comes across very nicely, and the overall ambiance of the soundtrack is acceptable. The lack of extras on this DVD is another major sore spot with me. Limited to the theatrical trailer, this title deserves so much more.

I enthusiastically recommend the film Quiz Show. It's a bold, brilliant example of filmmaking and storytelling at its absolute best. The acting is impeccable, and Robert Redford offers his directorial crown jewel. Unfortunately, I cannot unconditionally recommend the DVD version of Quiz Show, because the technical aspects of the disc are sub-par, and it lacks anything in the way of meaningful supplements.

Now if you'll excuse me, my favorite quiz show is about to come on...

Greg Suarez
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