Directed by: Robert Redford
Written by: Paul Attanasio
Company: Hollywood Pictures
Runtime: 133 minutes
This is one of the only few films nominated for Best Picture that is mostly set in the world of television.
The film starts with Herb Stempel, a slightly awkward man who is continuously winning in the famous television quiz show Twenty One. As he enjoys being the reigning champion of the show, Stempel finds himself threatened when Charles Van Doren, son of a renowned couple and a professor in a university, is in contacts with ther producers to join the game show.
Not that he is threatened that Van Doren is going to defeat him with the smarts, but because the producers actually want Stempel to give up his reign by intentionally giving the wrong answer. Forced by the situations, Stempel loses the game and Van Doren gets his place. Van Doren himself has become an unexpected sensation, and a heartthrob, for that matter.
Through the investigation of Dick Goodwin, the whole thing is exposed – the whole game show is a fraud, manipulated by the interests of the producers. This causes a national stir, putting the people involved in embarrassment and shame.
What will you make of a film that does all of the ups and downs of the plot by scenes of people exchanging dialogue?
The screenplay is as intelligent and as specific as a drama script can get. It’s very involving and it carries the emotional baggage with such ease that it makes watching the film a lot easier. It also causes the build-up of the plot with the use of words that makes the era it is in but also makes it very accessible to the audiences. I also like how it used dialogue to define the characters in a very subtle way. But for me, its biggest achievement is that it was able to make the backbone of the film. The whole film is consisted of exchanges of words, or the game show proper, leaving a very little time for much actions and noise. And for me, it was a very wise choice because it makes sense in what the film is really about – intelligence.
Now, there already is the said intelligence. But without the also-knowledgeable direction, it would not work. Fortunately, it did. Well, at first, it was very subtle, letting the screenplay establish the atmosphere of the film, which is mostly built in words, and guides it with utmost care. But as the conflict rises, the direction immediately takes over to raise the stakes of the story. It makes such wise decisions of giving very tense scenes the unexpected moments of silence that perfects the staging of what possibly some of the most breathtaking scenes ever built on words.
The cinematography captures the era it is in while giving way for the specificity of the vision of the filmmakers that makes the film distinct from the others. It is especially precise when the tension rises between the characters. You can sense the feeling of undeniable urgency with it. It also knows when to show off, when just to do the right thing, when to give the story the push it needs visually, and when to make it old school. It’s a very knowing camerawork, I must say.
The editing puts all of these things together with an editing that does not let these elements down. Instead, like the other elements discussed, it possesses the consciousness of the material that its foundation are the conversations and everything the characters say. Even the turning point of the story – Dick Goodwin viewing an old footage of the game – is revealed through words. So, it is up to the editing to compose these scenes for it not to be drowned in self-indulgence that most “intelligent” films have when they fail. But no, the film is edited in a thrilling way that it is almost you were watching the actual events happen, but not without the cinematic touch.
Curiously though, the film has very little or almost no musical score. There are few occurrences of music heard in the film, but honestly, there isn’t lot of music in here. And again, it is a smart choice to let the, again, words to actually move the story forward with the help of canny cinematography and slick editing.
The production values are also evident. The costume design appropriately makes the most of the opportunities for it to create a façade of the characters that suits them very well. The make-up and hairstyling are evidently good in bringing these actors to the period where the story is set. The production design was also successful to make this world where these characters are with such detail and clarity.
Ralph Fiennes gives a nuanced performance as Charles Van Doren. He comes in the film a bit late, but he easily picks up the character with ease, grace, and authentic dimension of the intelligence that he has. Using his charm, he raises the stakes of the character by making him likable but also, giving his character points of doubt.
John Turturro is very good as the unlikable but ultimately, sympathetic former quiz champion Herb Stempel. What’s so good about this performance is that he informs us that he is not perfect, yet we still need to root for him. Nothing is forced in his performance.
The rest of the cast, especially Rob Morrow, David Paymer, Paul Scofield, Elizabeth Wilson, and Martin Scorsese are also great in inhabiting their characters with full understanding and conviction.
Looking right now, it is arguably the least known of the five nominees of 1994 (Four Weddings is even much more known), and it is a sad thing because frankly, my dear, it is one of the best. A thrilling story told in a classic but modern way, this movie is. It’s full of scenes people talking, people arguing, people discussing, people admitting the truth, people saying lies, and with all of the words the film has, it was an engrossing experience, I must say.
For this, the movie gets:
Agree? Or disagree?