About fifty years ago, a cathodic ray tube apparatus began spreading across the United States and was soon recognized as the most dynamic and wondrous invention of modern times. No longer were we restricted to our reality, that dark corner that it can be, or even the boxed and timed microwave reality of the cineplex. Instead, our homes became a window to other worlds, other lives, and other destinies (more recently, a similar experience was enjoyed by those old enough to remember a pre-internet world). The price for such a miracle was its eventual degradation into a corporate tool, one designed at the usual lowest common denominator to amuse all and edify none. Now these pages are not the place for berating the public for their television habits (nor, I might add, to speculate about their concomitant unwillingness to open any of the bound leafy jewels sitting upon their shelves). That said, even back in the fledgling days of television there were many people who objected to what they saw as its potential for the promotion of kitschy, simplistic values and a popular culture in which our knowledge of the world would barely extend past our backyard fence. The bitter fate of one of those commendable people is dramatized in this fine film.
Our intellectual is Charles van Doren (Ralph Fiennes at the height of his fame), scion of a long line of writers, professors and graduates of this university. I cannot say I am personally familiar with the work and commitments of his family; but it did please me to learn that Charles's uncle Carl was apparently responsible for the revival of interest in this artist of genius. Charles, presumably like his forefathers, is a typical intellectual. That is to say, he is interested in learning for learning's sake alone; he has original theories about certain approaches to the material he loves; and, in the end, some if not many of his conclusions are correct. What separates a truly brilliant mind from that of the typical intellectual, however, is the decision – a very conscious decision – not to rest on one's proverbial laurels. That old chestnut about academics teaching the books or subjects they used for their oral exams has proven more often than not to be the rule rather than the exception. Van Doren has a broad range of interests, but seems content with his knowledge of English literature to study astronomy and try, as many intellectuals do, to merge the systems in his brain into one coherent perspective (intellectuals, you may have noticed, are holistic beasts). Yet van Doren is atypical in one important way. Both he and his ethereal understudy Fiennes exude a glamorous charm and natural presence that distinguish them from our normal idea of what bookish people devoted to learning might allow themselves to resemble. In fact, given van Doren's pedigree, looks and wit, he would be the perfect person to flaunt on this cathodic ray tube apparatus and help educate the country – even if he is rather skeptical about the likelihood of achieving that aim. For that reason, Charles is recruited by two television producers (David Paymer and Hank Azaria) for that most American of events, a game show.
The show is called Twenty One, and its gambling connotation is hardly coincidental. Contestants are asked a series of trivia questions, much more of a novelty in 1957, and win by being the first to get to the magic number, although ties are also possible. When van Doren enters upon the scene, the reigning champion is Herb Stempel (John Turturro), a worrywart underachiever who really could have been the champion with a little more effort. The problem, and lifeblood of the film, is the moral quandary in which Stempel finds himself. Although a smart man, Stempel is not quite as learned as his long run on the game show might indicate. His image remains that of a hopeless nerd whose social dysfunctionality is supposed to underscore his recourse to the little details of life that only interest the very few and the very lonely. And yet he has been cheating. His whole act as an invincible fortress of esoteric learning has continued at the behest of his producers, who give him the answers beforehand in reliance on his excellent memory. Yet the trouble with every puppet despot is the lack of respect which his puppeteers ultimately show him. He may outlive his usefulness as soon as a more attractive alternative presents itself – and life is full of attractive alternatives – but he will certainly be undermined by that feeling of unworthiness that prolonged cheating inevitably produces. Stempel does not respect himself, and no one in the know (most of, as it were, the television executives) respects Stempel. So the man hand-picked for his intelligence and credibility really possesses neither one, which makes van Doren and his effervescent ease in the spotlight all the more tempting. Once the switch is made – Stempel is told to lose and van Doren, fully aware of the ethical consequences, is informed in advance that he shall win – each of the men, so opposite in every way that we could only be dealing with fiction, plummets into self-loathing. For Stempel this means squabbling, lying, and paranoia; for van Doren, remorse that he cannot shake. And when an investigator (Rob Morrow) appears and starts asking all the wrong questions, van Doren is obliged to confront his hypocrisy with his usual grace. You may be surprised at the end, but you will certainly be underwhelmed at the moral valence of the characters and their decisions. Is it because trivia and its pursuits will always be of secondary importance? I don't think I need to tell you this answer.