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Charles Van Doren has a life that many people would be envious of. He is a member of one of the country's most intellectual and well respected families. His uncle, Carl, is a noted historian and his father, Mark, is a distinguished professor at Columbia University as well as Pulitzer-prize winning poet. Even his mother, Dorothy, is a well known author with several highly recognized pieces of literature. Charles is following in his father's footsteps as he works as an instructor at Columbia preparing to take over for his father once he retires.
Unfortunately for Van Doren, he feels that he lacks an identity in this family of overachievers. At this point in his life, he believes that he should have accomplished enough that people don't have to refer to him as "the son" but rather address him by his name. Clearly Van Doren doesn't realize how fortunate he is and that compared to nearly all the men in America, he is still more of a success than any of them will ever be. This insecurity and tragic flaw will ultimately lead to his demise over the course of the film. The question becomes not whether or not this tragic hero will do anything to gain the spotlight that his relatives have gained but rather to what extent will he be willing to compromise his values in the process.
The second scene of the film displays the seemingly secure process in which the questions for the show are taken to the studio. They are taken from a vault at the bank by police officers and there is a large procession that hand delivers the questions to the studio. It makes the viewer think that the whole quiz show thing is completely fraud-free. The camera then shows how such shows have captivated audiences around the country. Everyone wants to be a part of the phenomenon of quiz shows even if it means simply watching the show on television from their home. The audience ranges from couples to families to even nuns.
Yet the corruption is shown very early in the show as an executive makes a phone call to inform a producer that they want to get rid of the current winner on the show, Herbert Stempel, because he is getting tired of him. Stempel, who is a working class Jewish man from Queens, NY, has had an amazing run on the quiz show "Twenty-One". He has won a great deal of money and is milking the glory for all it's worth. When he returns to his modest neighborhood, he is treated like a king; something he has never experienced in his life and likely will never again. He does not have to take the subway back but rather arrives in a town car furnished by NBC and all of his neighbors are outside waiting to praise him.
Walking into his house, he proclaims, "The Genius is home, the rich genius is home." The glory and fame has gone to his head and he refuses to take his good fortune with modesty.The third scene of the film goes to a book signing where the viewer meets the Van Doren family for the first time. Mark Van Doren has recently released a new book and he is there to sign copies of them for his fans. He is joined by his equally intellectual wife Dorothy Van Doren who assists Mark with the event. Charles Van Doren is off to the side, out of the way of all the attention taking in an episode of the quiz show "Twenty-One". He follows the show intently, answering the questions as if he were actually on the show.
While watching the show, a woman sitting next to him asks him if he is the son, meaning the son of Mark Van Doren. Charlie acknowledges that in fact is the son of Mark Van Doren and the woman introduces herself to him. The viewer gets a sense that Charles Van Doren is used to being referred to as the son and that this is nothing new.After viewing the quiz show "Twenty-One" on television, Van Doren gets the idea to try out to be a contestant on a similar show. He is convinced by his friends that he would be well suited for such a thing. While at the studio interviewing for a spot on the show, one of the executives on the show "Twenty-One", Al Freedman, notices Van Doren and envisions him as the savior to their recently stagnant ratings.
His eyes light up when he hears that this potential candidate is none other than the son of Mark Van Doren. Dan Enright and Al Freedman meet with Van Doren and try to convince him to go on to "Twenty-One". When this opportunity presents itself for Van Doren to be put into a role where he can finally gain stature in his family, he is put into a position where he has to question his morals. Van Doren talks about him and gives Enright and Freedman some insight about his background. He tells them how he wrote a book about a patricide; the act of killing one's father and Van Doren mentions how his father enjoyed it.
This theme will resurface at the end of the movie but not in the literal sense. Enright and Freedman try to convince him that they should put him on the show and give him questions that he already knows. They try to give him real life examples about deception and cheating in regards to both film and writing. Freedman mentions how actor Gregory Peck doesn't really do the action scenes in his film and how a ghost writer really writes the books that bear President Eisenhower's name. Even so, Van Doren automatically realizes that this kind of behavior is morally wrong---it is essentially cheating.
He even questions what the famous philosopher Kant would think about this situation. A critical turning point of the film is when Van Doren faces a moment of truth, whether to answer a question he knew he was going to be asked or to incorrectly answer the question and maintain his integrity. Put on the spot, he struggles with he should do but eventually succumbs to the fame and fortune that will come with his success on the show. He experiences cognitive dissonance; basically justifying his immoral actions by the huge amount of money he receives. Prior to this Stempel faces his own moment of truth, whether to throw the game as he was told to do or to defy their wishes and accurately answer the question. He goes along with the plan because he is disillusioned by Enright's promises of grandeur. Stempel had everything to lose by throwing the show as there was not going to be a future for him in television as Enright had promised to him in an earlier meeting.
Stempel eventually realizes this and goes to the government to talk about how the game is rigged. While Van Doren tries to think through his decision, in retrospect, he too will realize that he has everything to lose by answering this one single question. Van Doren becomes an immediate success and the celebrity starts to go to his head like it did with Stempel. The attention he gets a school and the television appearances on the Today Show make it easier and easier for him to justify his decision. Unfortunately things aren't always rosy for Van Doren when Dick Goodwin comes up from Washington D.C. to New York City to investigate the quiz show. Goodwin is a Congressional investigator who after reading an article about how Stempel tried to get a trial about the cheating tak ...
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