Directed by Robert Redford
Written by Paul Attanasio
I had seen this once before, a few years ago, and I remember liking it, though I did not remember anything specifically. The story is simple enough: a guy is winning on a game show, gets replaced by the network in a fix for ratings and money and a whole controversy arises over the truthfulness of the game show in question, Twenty-One. The first guy was Herb Stempel (John Tuturro), a Jewish man from Queens. He was the underdog that the everyman could root for, he brought in ratings. Then the network notices that ratings have “plateaued,” which means it is time to bring in someone else. So who else to bring in but the son of the famous poet Mark Van Doren, Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). You have the name, the status, and yes, the ethnicity that the general public can get behind and ride the ratings, and the money, all the way to the top. Enter Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) who works for the Sub Committee on Oversight, and graduated first in his class at Harvard mind you. Goodwin jumps on the scene to investigate crooked game shows when it comes out that Stempel went to a grand jury saying his was forced out.
On a technical level, the film was brilliant. Under the sure hand of Robert Redford, the camera never makes a mistake and the flow and pace are basically pitch perfect. The tension in the booth and in the proceedings between characters was fantastic. The characters are fleshed out plenty, though I could have used a little more Goodwin’s personal life I suppose. The performances are all there as well, every one of ’em. Even Marty Scorsese does not disappoint. My favorite here was Morrow. Maybe it was just his character, but I loved Rob Morrow here. Ralph Fiennes has always been a favorite of mine and Tuturro has never let me down, though I was surprised that the lone acting award this was nominated for was Paul Scofield, but everyone certainly played their parts quite well. The look of the film was great too. I am not sure what they shot this on, but it did seem to make it look much more filmy and I dug that completely. Plus all of the little camera tricks and movements were quite fantastic.
The moral of the story is strong. The fixing was clearly wrong. Stempel and Van Doren, though certainly guilty, were victims in the whole process too. The real criminal here was television. The network and the sponsors were using the show and its contestants to make more money. They fixed the show to peek ratings and sales and for no other reason. They took the trust of the American people and did what they pleased with it. The point one of the producers tries to make at the end is poignant: television is entertainment, so what if it is fixed. Certainly that is very true, but at the time when television was just becoming big, that mindset did not exist yet in the American people. They felt robbed and in turn all the blame went on Stempel and Van Doren and not the network and sponsor who got away with denying their involvement. Seeing the faces of Stempel, Van Doren and Goodwin at the end was heartbreaking. Goodwin’s last line when someone congratulates him pretty much sums it up: “I thought we were going to get television.”
**** – Masterpiece
Commentary on Anti-Semitism
The commentary here is much more subtle and small in volume. Really this is a story about money and greedy executives and not so much about anti-Semitism, though it is still present. Herbie is a Jew and he does make the observation, which is later confirmed by Dick, that they have a Jew win, then a Gentile who wins more money. There are one or two racial slurs, but I think what was more important was how they treated the contestants on the show, Herbie and Charles I mean. They replaced Herbie because they felt that Van Doren would be some kind of Christ figure who would help the country improve education, whereas kids didn’t want to aspire to be some “annoying Jew” who had a “sponge memory”. No, they wanted to be New York intellectuals like Van Doren. The class part of this is not insignificant either. Van Doren as part of some aristocratic, famous family and Stempel as some schmuck from Queens. I was also keen to observe Van Doren’s confession and the response. At first some of the member had commended him for his honesty when no less than five minutes ago they gave no such sympathy to Stempel. Here it is all about image and money, and less about in-your-face anti-Semtism.