This movie’s based on a true story; I don’t know how closely, nor, as usual, do I care. And the main message is not its truth, in particular, but how much better a person Robert Redford is than you are.

It’s the 60s. “Twenty-One” is the most popular quiz show on television, and it turns out that it’s rigged to have properly popular winners: first, a bumbling Jewish everyman, Herb Stempel (John Turturro), and then a good-looking preppie, Charles van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). A frankly irritatingly idealist lawyer working for some congressional committee on oversight, Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow), cottons on and then digs around. He believes that he will “take down television.” I don’t even know what that means, but Van Doren’s father gives a lecture on Don Quixote (to an uncredited Ethan Hawke!), so I’d guess that’s what we’re supposed to take away.

And that’s really how I feel about this movie. It deals with Issues–all of which are real, and serious–but it deals with those Issues with the subtlety of a navvy, and none of the pay-off is earned. An example: Dick’s religion is dealt with mostly by the bye (he’s from Brookline, he has eaten rugelach), until his wife (Mira Sorvino) yells at him for being the Uncle Tom of the Jews. She is unpleasant generally. On the other side, Van Doren’s family are caricatures of Connecticut, capable only of boating and Bardinage.

As a parable about anti-Semitism or general honesty this might have succeeded, but you’ll not be shocked to learn that Mr. Redford has loftier aims, and doesn’t quite succeed, especially as the larger moral is awkwardly shoe-horned.

Stray notes:

  • In this “Mad Men” era we sometimes forget that that kind of attention to detail was not always the norm in show business, and the cuts of suits and hair in this film shade early-90s.
  • Ralph Fiennes is super young and super cute. He neither murders anyone nor catches fire. Refreshing.
  • However, his accent is pretty bad.

Director: Robert Redford
Rating: PG-13
Length: 133 min.
Score: 3/5.

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