When America Lost Its Innocence--Maybe

The fall season gets off to an auspicious, Oscar-contending start with Quiz Show, Robert Redford's savvy, snappy account of the TV quiz-show scandals of the late '50s. Its arrival has already provoked a favorite American question: when did we as a nation lose our innocence? It's an absurd question, of course, that assumes a homogeneous "we." (Ask a Native American that, and you'll get a very early citing.) Absurd too because, since this is a nation with no historical memory, every generation has its own answer. But it's a vital question nonetheless, for no country has been so obsessed with the myth of its innocence as ours. It's the clean slate from which we are able continually to reinvent ourselves, the source of what has been best in our optimistic, idealistic culture and what has kept us childish, close-minded and brutally provincial.

No era was more invested in the myth than the boom years of the 1950s, when television arrived to beam back at us gift-wrapped images of our cheery, wide-eyed selves, laugh track included. But it was through television and the print media that the cracks began to show. The demagoguery of Joe McCarthy was exposed on live TV. The U-2 spy-plane scandal: imagine, the United States spied on the Soviets, and had lied about it! Sherman Adams and his vicuna coat: we were shocked, shocked that a politician might take a gift!

Neck high in '90s cynicism, it's hard to believe the tremors these scandals provoked. What's a vicuna coat next to Iran-contra? Except by then the country was so blase about governmental deception it could barely rouse itself to outrage. In the '50s, Ingrid Bergman was blacklisted from Hollywood for having a baby out of wedlock. Today, Oliver North makes hash of the Constitution and it jump-starts his political career. What used to ruin your life gets you invited on "Oprah" and a fat book deal. Shame is for losers; public confession and a 12-step program can turn you into a role model.

In 1959 Charles Van Doren, who had become a national hero as a contestant on the NBC quiz show "Twenty-One," fell from grace when he admitted before a congressional hearing that he'd been fed the answers. A patrician intellectual, the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Van Doren, this Columbia University instructor had been hailed as the exemplary American "egghead." He was the great white hope of higher education, the man who made the cerebral sexy. After the revelations -- the American public's rude awakening to television's capacity for mendacity -- he lost his teaching post, got dumped from the "Today" show and slid into self-imposed obscurity working for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Why should we care about a man who sold his soul for $129,000 more than 35 years ago? Redford and screenwriter Paul Attanasio, who wasn't even born when Van Doren entered his soundproof booth to vanquish his competitor Herbert Stempel, must have worried that old Faustian bargains would seem small potatoes in an era when celebrity scandals involve charges of child molestation and murder. But "Quiz Show" is about more than a bygone media frenzy or some questionable notion of lost American innocence. Its true subjects owe little to nostalgia. It's about where the power and the profits lie, about institutions and their scapegoats, and about how class and ethnicity color our view of the world in our supposedly classless society.

Redford approaches the story from three angles. There's Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), wearing his privilege diffidently, who strolls into the wolf's den of showbiz and allows himself to be convinced that his ethical lapse is justified by all the good it will do the cause of education. Then there's Herbert Stempel (John Turturro). A Jew from Queens, seething with resentment that he had to take a fall for the glamour boy Van Doren, he's the first to spill the beans about the fraud, but he's so volatile, so transparently resentful -- and so unattractive compared to Van Doren -- that no one wants to believe him. The third figure is the movie's designated sleuth, Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), the hotshot Harvard law grad working for a congressional committee investigating game-show rigging. A Jew with a Harvard accent as thick as JFK's (for whom he would later write speeches), he wants to go after the networks themselves -- not Van Doren, whose charm and lineage beguile him.

Attanasio's dense, smart screenplay takes some liberties with the facts: the chronology is toyed with, and Goodwin's role as a detective is fanciful -- the grand-jury files that are denied him in the movie were in fact readily handed over, as he recounts in his book "Remembering America." Fortunately, the point is not to portray Goodwin as some shining, crusading hero. What's intriguing is his divided loyalties -- his eagerness to be part of the patrician world of the man he may destroy. Stempel, played with broad brilliance by Turturro as a near-stereotypical pushy, neurotic Jew, tells Goodwin that the show "always follows a Jew with a Gentile -- and the Gentile wins more." Goodwin doesn't want to believe Van Doren's crooked any more than the TV audience wanted to; he goes out of his way to protect him, causing his wife to call him the "Uncle Tom of the Jews." "Quiz Show" reveals how the tyranny of image was already in place in the '50s. There's a wonderfully double-edged scene when Van Doren makes his eloquent mea culpa at the hearing, and the lawmakers, cowed by class, fall over themselves to praise the cheater's candor. These are social observations Hollywood movies rarely think to explore.

"Quiz Show" is superbly shot (by Michael Ballhaus), and the acting ensemble could hardly be better. Morrow, once you get over his Saul Rubinek eyebrows and ostentatious accent, gives a finely reactive performance. Fiennes is magnetic in just the right understated way, a portrait of easy charm with a guilty conscience. All down the line there are rich turns: David Paymer and Hank Azaria as the show's producer and his assistant, Paul Scofield as Mark Van Doren, Allan Rich as the tough NBC honcho Robert Kintner, Martin Scorsese wickedly sly as the head of Geritol, "Twenty-One's" sponsor. If there are villains in the piece, these last two men qualify -- they're the ones who really called the shots. But we see how the power structure is rigged so that the truly guilty are untouchable. "Quiz Show" is witty enough never to need to get on a soapbox to make its points.

Robert Redford may have become a more complacent movie star in the last decade, but he has become a more daring and accomplished filmmaker. "Quiz Show" is his best movie since "Ordinary People," and it confirms him as one of our most astute cinematic chroniclers and critics of WASP mores. He has kept his eye on the ball of power, and in this shrewd and highly entertaining look back, shows us some of the bounces that got us where we are today.