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Dick Goodwin: You know, I remember five, six years ago my uncle Harold told my aunt about this affair he had. It was a sort of mildly upsetting event in my family.
Charles Van Doren: "Mildly"?
Goodwin: Well, you have to put it in context. See the thing of it is, the affair was over something like eight years. So I remember asking him, you know, "Why'd you tell her? You got away with it." And I'll never forget what he said: it was the getting away with it part he couldn't live with.
Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) is the nerdy, trivia-spouting Jew from Queens who has had a long run as Twenty One's most successful contestant — helped along for an unspecified but significant amount of time by being told the questions and answers in advance. The show's producers, Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), are told by the network, who have been told by the sponsor, that Stempel is no longer a favorite with the viewing public and will have to take a dive... just as Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the handsome, impressive, telegenic son of one of the country's most prominent intellectual families, decides he'd like to take a crack at appearing on a quiz show. As Van Doren finds himself getting deeper and deeper into the deception — and rising to new heights of fame as a result — Stempel looks to vindicate his bruised ego by exposing the show, and Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a young, idealistic congressional lawyer looking for his big break, picks up on the rumors of fixing and decides to investigate.
- American Dream: Flavor two.
- The Beautiful Elite: The Van Dorens.
- Big Applesauce
- Deadpan Snarker: Almost everyone.
- Description Porn: That car in the opening scene.
- Did Not Do the Research: Oh, so much. Redford admitted this was intentional.
- Quiz Show has Stempel immediately losing upon taking his dive. The actual episode of Twenty One continued on to another tie game, after which the match finally ended.
- The film only concentrates on Twenty-One, despite the fact that The $64,000 Question and the nighttime Tic-Tac-Dough were far more frequent in their rigging; the latter has a very notable, very obvious example circulating where a contestant refuses to go for the winning box over and over again.
- While Twenty-One was the most high-profile of the rigged quizzes, it wasn't the one that sparked the scandals — that was Dotto (1958), which became the most-watched show on TV within weeks of its January debut and was shot down by August. (Dotto is also not discussed in Quiz Show.)
- Don't Make Me Destroy You: Goodwin effectively promises not to subpoena Van Doren if he just keeps his head down during the investigation, because "the contestants are not the villains here." (Sandra thinks this is just because he's so enamored of the Van Doren family.)
- Downer Ending: Goodwin fails to "get television" as he'd hoped, since Enright and Freedman take the fall for the whole network (rightly expecting that it's nothing they can't bounce back from). Everyone above them lies and gets off scot free. In the end all the public disfavor falls on Stempel and Van Doren, who arguably deserve it the least of everyone involved. And TV marches on relatively unexamined. The ending voiceover says it all:
Committee member: ...and you obviously don't think you did anything wrong!
Enright: Yes, we did one thing wrong. We were too successful.
Committee member: You were too successful?
Enright: Those advertising dollars came from somewhere. Why do you think the newspapers and magazines are making such a big thing about this?
Committee member: Mr. Enright, you make it sound like you are the victim here.
Enright: Well, the sponsor makes out, the network makes out, the contestants see money they probably would never see in a lifetime, and the public is entertained! So who gets hurt?
(lingering shot of Charles Van Doren suffering a guilt attack as he gets into his taxi)
Committee member: Mr. Freedman, you freely admit that you helped rig these shows.
Freedman: Yes, sir.
Committee member: "Yes, sir"? That's it?
Freedman: Well, sir, I don't know what else to say. Give the public what they want. It's like your business.
Committee member: And do you see a need for government regulation in this area?
Freedman: [laughing] You know, it's not like the quiz shows are a public utility, sir. It's entertainment. We're not exactly hardened criminals here. We're in show business.
- The Fifties
- From a Certain Point of View: The endless justifications various characters offer for the cheating.
- Funny Moments: Several.
- "This week on Twenty One, watch Herbert Stempel be fed to the Columbia Lion! Watch Charles Van Doren eat his first kosher meal on Twenty One!"
- During a montage of answers about what happened to Henry VIII's various wives: "Well, they all died."
- "Excuse me, do you think he might see me before the peacock molts."
- "They gave you all that money to answer questions they knew you knew -- now that's inflation!"
- "Mercy. What a grueling line of inquiry."
- "You want to be worshipped? Go to India and moo."
- "For seventy grand, Herb, you can afford to be humiliated."
- Hauled Before a Senate Subcommittee
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Martin Scorsese in a small role as the Geritol executive.
- Historical Domain Character
- Jews Love to Argue: The Stempels.
- Keeping Secrets Sucks: Take a drink every time Ralph Fiennes stresses out.
- Manipulative Editing: What Enright and Freedman do with the tape of Stempel after he storms into the office.
- Motifs: The recurring theme of a contestant losing on a question he not only knows, but invests with some kind of personal significance: Stempel has to pretend he thinks On the Waterfront won the Best Picture Oscar for 1955 when he loved Marty so much he saw it three times; the film of James Snodgrass's appearance shows him not taking the expected dive on the quote "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul," which he correctly identifies as being by "one of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson" -- the implication being that because she was his favorite he wouldn't sink so low as to deny knowing one of her most famous lines; and Van Doren inadvertantly lets Goodwin know he lost on purpose by "forgetting" the name of the king of Belgium, whom Goodwin has heard him talk about. The thread linking these is Lampshaded by the dialogue when Goodwin confronts Van Doren about it:
Van Doren: A toast, to "escape -- it is the basket in which the heart is caught when down some awful battlement the rest of life is dropt."
Goodwin: King Baudouin.
Van Doren: Emily Dickinson, actually.
- No Such Thing as Bad Publicity: Apparently believed by Herb Stempel who, as Goodwin puts it, "has to be dragged from the spotlight with his teethmarks still on it." For all his insistence that he's The Atoner and his motive for uncovering the show's fraudulence is purely ethical, he seems to revel in the attention, with little ability to distinguish between good fame and bad fame. He learns his lesson at the end when he sees what Van Doren's ordeal has done to him.
Reporter: Herb Stempel! Herbie, how about a picture, you and Van Doren together?
Stempel: No, no. Christ, look at the guy.
Reporter: Come on, the both of you!
Stempel: You know what the problem with you bums is? You never leave a guy alone, unless you're leaving him alone.
- Oh Crap: Stempel when he learns he's going to be cut loose, then when Toby overhears him say he cheated; Enright when Goodwin comes up with a solid case against the show; Van Doren when he hears that Freedman has gone to Mexico, meaning he too is on his own.
- Ordered to Cheat: The entire plot. It's unknown whether Herb Stempel started out cheating, but by the time we meet him, he's begging Enright to let him play honestly. He can do it; he's a trivia genius. To add insult to injury, he has to lose on an easy pop-culture question he knows in his sleep. When Van Doren is taken on as the new contestant, the producers suggest cheating before his first show; he declines, but then they arrange for him to be asked one of the practice questions he got right for his winning points. Under the pressure, it's too much for him to resist, and from there on he goes along.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Congressman Derounian to Van Doren following his confession.
- Two intresting notes about that; first, the three other Congressmen in charge of the committee actually congragulated Van Doren for his confession and subsequent apology, it was that impassioned. And second, it is only after Derounian speaks that the people in attendance applaud. This deliberately confuses the audience as to whether they were cheering for or against Van Doren.
- Serious Business: Stempel is determined most of all that the American public will know that he actually knew Marty won the Best Picture Oscar of 1955.
- Show Within a Show: Twenty One.
- Smug Snake: The executives, and especially Martin Scorsese's character.
- Stop Being Stereotypical: It's never stated outright, but implied that this is part of Goodwin's discomfort with Herb Stempel (both are Jewish).
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: Charles Van Doren knows denying that he cheated before he's been accused will just make him look guiltier... and then does it anyway, leading Goodwin to surmise that at this point, he wants to get caught.
- Those Two Guys: Enright and Freedman.
- Vertigo Effect: When Van Doren decides to take a fall.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The Wikipedia article explains some of the liberties taken with the facts of the story.
- Viewers are Morons: In-universe. Martin Scorsese as Rittenhome makes it clear to Goodwin he's not intimidated by the prospect of being exposed, because no one cares if the quiz shows are honest or if the contestants aren't really earning their fame and fortune: "See, the audience didn't tune in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money."
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: Charles Van Doren uses his success to feel as accomplished as the other members of his family, which works on everyone but his father, whom he wants it to work on the most. Mark Van Doren couldn't care less about who wins TV game shows and would be happiest if Charlie just earnestly settled into his teaching, and thus is especially devastated when Charlie tells him he's been cheating the whole time.
- What the Hell, Hero?: Toby when she finds out Herb cheated. Mark Van Doren when Charlie confesses to him. Dick's wife and his colleagues on the congressional subcommittee, asking why he's so reluctant to put Van Doren on the stand.
- What You Are in the Dark
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Dick Goodwin, at first.