Before watching the movie:
I have a dim memory of being aware this movie was in theaters. It was nothing I would have gotten to see at the time, but it vaguely sparked some interest as a regular viewer of Jeopardy. I didn’t know what it was about then. It was 20 years later that Jeopardy had their own ratings-driving long-runner, but the reason it hadn’t happened before is that they had only recently dropped the forced retirement rule instituted to keep above the appearance of doing the same rigging that actually happened on Twenty-One.
There is absolutely no reason I can think of why this should remind me of The King’s Speech, but here we are. Maybe one of the posters for that movie shows the King making the radio address from behind? It’s completely immaterial, so.
After watching the movie:
In the early days of television, game shows dominate the ratings, and they’re all rigged for maximum audience appeal. But none are more popular than Twenty-One, the most crooked game in town. Herbie Stempel, an abrasive, geeky Jewish guy from Queens, is the long-reigning champion because record-breaking streaks get viewers, but when his numbers stop going up, his number is up. Charles Van Doren, bright, charming, affable son of an eminent professor, is the producers’ perfect choice for their next big winner, if they can talk him into letting them coach him on the answers. But spurned Herbie takes his grievance to the already-running grand jury investigation into quiz show ethics, and their findings end up being sealed. This attracts the attention of young lawyer Dick Goodwin, looking for a case to make his name on for the congressional committee for regulatory agency oversight. Goodwin wants to pin the scandal on the network and the sponsor, but he wants to do it without ruining the contestants. And Charles has such a big reputation at stake.
In a movie with such big presences, it would be easy for anyone to get lost. But Rob Morrow ends up much more in the background than the lawyer making his career on this case should be. Hidden behind the likes of John Turturro, Ralph Fiennes, and Paul Scofield, the central agent in the plot for the last half of the movie is just kind of there.
The biggest thing I’m left wondering about the adaptation of real events is how crooked the rest of the game show landscape were. Twenty-One is made out to be representative of all of television, but I got no sense that there was much of the same thing going on elsewhere aside from having the same producers involved. There’s barely even mention of other shows existing, so it ends up being just one show on all of television, and of course people will watch that.
A great historical drama carried by Ralph Fiennes, this is perhaps a little too fictionalized to glean much history from. But it is as calculated as the results of the show it’s about, and the outcome is a period drama questioning the innate morality of us all in the face of unimaginable amounts of money.