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The film chronicles the rise and fall of the popular contestant Charles Van Doren after the rigged loss of Herb Stempel and Congressional investigator Richard Goodwin's probe of Twenty One's game-fixing. Goodwin co-produced the film.
From a secure bank vault, the answers to Twenty One, a popular primetime quiz television show, are sent into a television studio as studio producers Dan Enright and Albert Freedman watch from the control booth. The evening's main attraction is Queens resident Herbert Stempel, the reigning champion, who answers question after question. However, both the network and the corporate sponsor of the program, a supplementary tonic called Geritol, find that Stempel's approval ratings are beginning to level out, meaning the show would benefit from new talent.
Enright and Freedman find a new contestant in Columbia University instructor Charles Van Doren, son of the renowned poet and intellectual Mark Van Doren and the novelist Dorothy Van Doren. The producers subtly offer to rig the show for him but Van Doren uprightly refuses. Enright soon treats Stempel to dinner at an upscale restaurant, where he breaks the news that Stempel must lose in order to boost flagging ratings. Stempel begrudgingly agrees, only on the condition that he remains on television, threatening to reveal the true reason of his success: the answers had been provided to him.
Stempel and Van Doren face each other in Twenty One, where the match comes down to a predetermined question regarding Marty, the 1955 winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture. Despite knowing the correct film, Stempel gives the wrong answer, allowing Van Doren to get a question he previously answered while in Enright's offices; he provides the winning response.
In the weeks that follow, Van Doren's winning streak makes him a national celebrity. Buckling under the new pressure, he begins to let the producers directly give him the answers instead of researching for them himself. Meanwhile, Stempel, having lost his financial prize winnings to a fleeting bookie, begins threatening legal action against the NBC network after weeks go by without his return to television. He is shown going into the office of New York County District Attorney Frank Hogan.
Dick Goodwin, a young Congressional lawyer from Harvard Law, becomes intrigued when he reads that the Grand Jury's findings from Hogan's proceedings are sealed. He travels to New York to investigate rumors of rigged quiz shows. Visiting a number of contestants, including Stempel and Van Doren, he begins to suspect Twenty One is indeed a fixed operation. However, Stempel is a volatile personality and nobody else seems to corroborate that the show is rigged. Goodwin enjoys the company of Van Doren, who invites him to social gatherings, and doubts a man of Van Doren's background and intellect would be involved in the hoax.
Stempel desperately confesses to being in on the fix himself, and further insists that if he got the answers in advance, Van Doren did as well. With the evidence mounting, Van Doren deliberately loses, but is rewarded with a sizable contract from NBC to appear as a special correspondent on the Today show.
Meanwhile, Goodwin proceeds with the hearings before the House Committee for Legislative Oversight, with extended proof of the show's corruption. Goodwin strongly advises Van Doren to avoid making any public statements supporting the show. If he agrees to this, Goodwin promises not to call Van Doren to appear before the Congressional committee. However, at the prompting of the NBC network head, Van Doren issues a statement reaffirming his trust in the honesty of the quiz show.
Stempel testifies before Congress and, while doing so, implicates Van Doren, forcing Goodwin to call him in as a witness. Van Doren goes before Congress and publicly admits his role in the conspiracy. Afterward, he is informed by reporters of his firing from Today as well as the university's decision to ask for his resignation.
Goodwin believes he is on the verge of a victory against Geritol and the network, but instead realizes that Enright and Freedman will not turn in their bosses and jeopardize their own futures in television; he silently watches the producers' testimony, vindicating the sponsors and the network from any wrongdoing.
The movie has Goodwin starting his pursuit of Van Doren during the contestant's 1956-1957 run on Twenty-One, when in fact the Congressional investigation led by Goodwin came in Summer 1959.
The movie implies that NBC conveyed to Enright the desires of Twenty-One sponsor Geritol that Stempel be replaced, with network president Bob Kintner (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 prompted the company to rig the show.
The movie shows Van Doren's win was directly because of Stempel's dive; while the question shown in the movie was the one that Stempel was told to take a dive on (even though he knew the correct answer), it did not end the game immediately, instead going on for another tie game and ending later in the show. The episode in which Stempel was defeated (which sent the ratings to a great high after Van Doren's win) aired December 5, 1956, as the thirteenth episode of the series.
The movie shows Barry slightly recoiling when a contestant, James Snodgrass, answers correctly instead of incorrectly on a question on which he was supposed to take a dive. Barry, Enright's business partner and co-producer, was never implicated in rigging the show but covered up for Enright once he found out. In addition, Monty Hall had become host in early 1958 and was still hosting when the scandal broke.
The movie does not acknowledge the rigging practices of other 1950s quiz shows, the most prominent being The $64,000 Question, Dotto, and Barry-Enright's own Tic-Tac-Dough. Dotto's absence is particularly notable, as it was the show that sparked the investigations.
Journalist Ken Auletta, in a 1994 article in The New Yorker, noted that Redford conceded at a screening of the film that summer that "dramatic license" was taken in making Quiz Show, like most fact-based dramatizations. Redford made no apologies for the liberties, which included telescoping three years of scandal into one. Redford stated that 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 1992 installment of the PBS series The American Experience. (Krainin, like Goodwin, was a co-producer of Quiz Show.)
In a July 2008 edition of The New Yorker, 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, who is not present in the film depiction. Van Doren also notes that he continued teaching, contrary to the film's epilogue which states he never returned to doing so.
- John Turturro as Herb Stempel
- Rob Morrow as Dick Goodwin
- Ralph Fiennes as Charles Van Doren
- David Paymer as Dan Enright
- Paul Scofield as Mark Van Doren
- Hank Azaria as Albert Freedman
- Christopher McDonald as Jack Barry
- Johann Carlo as Toby Stempel
- Elizabeth Wilson as Dorothy Van Doren
- Allan Rich as Robert Kintner
- Mira Sorvino as Sandra Goodwin
- George N. Martin as Chairman
- Paul Guilfoyle as Lishman
- Griffin Dunne as Account Guy
- Michael Mantell as Pennebaker
- Martin Scorsese as Martin Rittenhome
- Neil Ross as Twenty-One Announcer