|Hank Azaria||Albert Freedman|
|Johann Carlo||Toby Stempel|
|Griffin Dunne||Account Guy|
|Ralph Fiennes||Charles Van Doren|
|Christopher McDonald||Jack Barry|
|Rob Morrow||Dick Goodwin|
|David Paymer||Dan Enright|
|Allan Rich||Robert Kintner|
|Paul Scofield||Mark Van Doren|
|Martin Scorsese||Martin Rittenhome|
|Mira Sorvino||Sandra Goodwin|
|John Turturro||Herb Stempel|
|Elizabeth Wilson||Dorothy Van Doren|
The movie follows the events surrounding the Quiz show scandals of the 1950s, focusing on the intertwining stories of the three protagonists, clean-cut All-American intellectual Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), boisterous, unpolished ex-GI Herbert Stempel (John Turturro), and the idealistic Congressional lawyer assigned to investigate Twenty One, Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow).
The film begins with lawyer Richard Goodwin admiring a brand new Chrysler, wondering aloud, even as the dealer highlights the various features of the luxury car, if the pursuit of money and material goods is what truly matters most in '50s America. The scene then switches to the premiere of a new episode of the game show Twenty One and follows the quiz questions as they are taken from a secure bank vault into the television studio. Studio producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria) watch from the control booth as host Jack Barry (Christopher McDonald) prepares for the show.
The evening's main attraction is Queens resident Herbert Stempel, who, despite his less than flattering appearance, is the reigning Twenty One champion. As Stempel answers question after question, even after the producers order the air conditioning turned off in his enclosed booth and he begins to sweat profusely, word filters down from show sponsor Geritol all the way to Enright—Stempel is old news. The sponsor wants a new contestant.
Herb Stempel remains optimistic about his situation and returns home to find his neighborhood turned out to congratulate him. He remarks to his wife, Toby, that he might go on doing the show forever, earning them enough money to finally quit their dependency on Toby's overbearing mother. Enright and Freedman, meanwhile, search for a contestant to defeat Stempel, one who embodies the All-American image they've been looking for. They find their new champion in Columbia instructor Charles Van Doren (Fiennes), son of renowned intellectual Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield) and prize-winning novelist Dorothy Van Doren (Elizabeth Wilson).
Van Doren is American royalty, sophisticated and accomplished enough to provide the hero to Stempel's unwashed, egghead villain, and, despite trying out for a different quiz show, is talked into doing Twenty One. Enright and Freedman promise Van Doren he will advance the cause of American education, and offer to rig the show for him. The upright Van Doren refuses, believing the offer is part of a test. Enright treats Stempel to dinner at an upscale restaurant, where he breaks the news that, because of flagging ratings, Stempel must lose to Van Doren. Stempel immediately protests, and it is revealed that Enright provided him with the answers to the questions, although he agrees to play along after Enright promises he will be offered a spot on a panel show after his loss.
The two contestants both perform admirably during the first few rounds in a montage of questions; however, late in the game, Stempel still leads 18–10. He then takes the category Movies, for three points, and it is at this point he is offered the question Enright ordered he take a fall on: "Which motion picture won the Academy Award for 1955?" Knowing the correct answer, Stempel wrestles with his conscience until finally, following through with the network plan, he answers incorrectly. Van Doren is then given a chance to win and is asked a question he previously answered while in Enright's offices, one the producers know he will get right. Van Doren also wrestles with his conscience until finally, overwhelmed by all that might lie ahead, he answers correctly. Van Doren is the new champion.
In the weeks that follow, Van Doren rises to national stardom. He appears on the covers of Life and Time, becomes a well-known instructor at Columbia, and is recognized by people on the street. He wins show after show, and his clean-cut image provokes a newfound interest in learning around the country. However, buckling under the pressure, he begins to let Enright and Freedman feed him the answers. Stempel sinks back into relative obscurity after blowing his sizable reward money on questionable business ventures and begins threatening legal action after Enright reneges on his previous offer of a spot on a panel show.
Dick Goodwin, first in his class at Harvard Law, travels to New York to investigate the possibility of rigged quiz shows. Visiting both Stempel and Van Doren, he holds a sneaking suspicion that Twenty One is not on the level; however Stempel is too volatile to use as a key witness and nobody else seems to corroborate his story. Goodwin also meets Van Doren, who treats him to a dinner at his parents' estate and invites him to his weekly poker game. The two become friends despite their differences (as Goodwin is Jewish and comes from an unimposing background, despite graduating from Harvard, while Van Doren is the privileged son of a wealthy WASP family).
With the pressure finally getting to him, Van Doren deliberately loses to challenger Vivienne Nearing (much like Stempel, on a question he knew the answer to) but is offered a sizable contract from NBC to appear as a special correspondent on the Today show promoting culture around America. He earns over $100,000 from the show. Goodwin, meanwhile, goes ahead with congressional hearings after meeting a former Twenty One contestant who, upon receiving the questions and answers, mailed them via registered post to himself before the show's taping. Goodwin amasses a large amount of evidence against Twenty One but, before he leaves, advises Van Doren to avoid making public statements supporting the show. If he does this, Goodwin promises, he will not be called to appear before the committee investigating the scandals.
The final part of the film deals with each of the three major characters wrestling with their consciences in the pursuit of justice. Stempel must deal with his hypocrisy, as he also benefited from receiving the quiz show answers, as well as his lies to his wife and son. Goodwin argues with his wife, Sandra (Mira Sorvino), over whether he has a responsibility to bring Van Doren to justice. Van Doren finds himself seduced by fame, signing a statement reaffirming his trust in the legality of the quiz shows upon the prompting of the network head (Allan Rich).
Goodwin is forced to call Van Doren in for questioning, who then admits his guilt to his father. Goodwin, seemingly on the verge of a victory against Geritol and the networks, realizes that Enright and Freedman will not implicate their bosses in the conspiracy, preferring a few years of persecution in the eyes of the American public to a lifetime of exile by corporate sponsors. Van Doren does admit his role in the conspiracy, and is told by reporters of both his firing from the Today show by NBC and the University's decision to ask for his resignation. Stempel, vindicated at long last, finds himself berating the reporters who now harass Van Doren ("You never leave a guy alone unless you're leaving him alone!") while Goodwin remains stone-faced as he watches Enright and Freedman testify that their sponsors and NBC had no knowledge of the quiz show corruption.
The film is the first major picture based on the 1950s controversy that rocked American television and nearly led to the ruination of quiz-show producers Jack Barry (who was also Twenty One host and here played by McDonald) and Dan Enright (Paymer). Its attention to period detail include using New York exteriors to re-create 1950s scenes and using many New York and New Jersey indoor spaces to replicate the NBC studios and Washington governmental facilities of the times. Fordham University was used to replicate the 1950s Columbia University, where Van Doren taught English.
While the movie purports to portray real events, it has been widely criticized for taking liberties to create its own heroes and villains. The movie has investigator Goodwin starting his pursuit of Van Doren during the contestant's 1957 run on Twenty One, when in fact the Congressional investigation led by Goodwin came in the summer of 1959. Others have complained that it inflates Goodwin's role in the probe and underplays the initial investigation, led by prosecutor Joseph Stone from the office of New York County District Attorney Frank Hogan. It was after Judge Mitchell Schweitzer sealed from public release the New York grand jury presentment of findings in the probe (in June 1959) that Congress launched its investigation.
The movie implies that NBC conveyed to Enright the desires of Twenty One sponsor Geritol that Stempel be replaced, with network president Bob Kintner (played by Allan Rich) telling Enright, "You're a producer, Dan. Produce." Neither Kintner nor NBC was ever implicated in the scandal and NBC cancelled the show when it heard about the scandal, but Enright claimed before his death that Geritol's complaints about the lack of drama and suspense in the unrigged premiere episode prompted the company to rig the show.
Enright's business partner, co-producer and emcee Jack Barry, has never been implicated in rigging the show but covered up for Enright once he found out. Yet the movie has the Barry character slightly recoiling when a contestant, James Snodgrass, answers correctly instead of incorrectly. Additionally, Monty Hall was acting as host of the show at the time when the scandal broke, not Barry.
The movie also fails to acknowledge the rigging practices of other quiz shows such as The $64,000 Question, Dotto, and Barry & Enright's own Tic Tac Dough.
Journalist Ken Auletta, in a 1994 article in The New Yorker, noted that at a screening of the film that summer, Redford admitted that, like most fact-based dramatizations, "dramatic license" was taken in making Quiz Show. But Auletta also reported that Redford made no apologies for the liberties, saying he had tried "to elevate something so that people can see it...otherwise, you might as well have a documentary." Redford noted there had already been a documentary on the scandal, referring to the Julian Krainin-produced work for a 1991 installment of the PBS series The American Experience. (Krainin, like Goodwin, is a co-producer of Quiz Show.)
In a July 2008 edition of The New Yorker Charles Van Doren writes about the events depicted in the film, agreeing with many of the details, but also saying that he had a regular girlfriend at the time he was on Twenty One. In the film depiction he does not.