The year is 1957, Sputnik has just launched, Eisenhower has died and Nixon is president. The quiz-based game show Twenty One, hosted by the reptilian Jack Barry (a tremendously smarmy Christopher McDonald) has swept the nation and every week John Turtorro’s nerdy know-it-all Herb Stemple defeats his new opponent. The only problem is, Stemple’s ‘freak with a sponge memory’ appearance, all bad teeth, terrible glasses and ill-fitting suit, isn’t playing well with the shows bosses and sponsors, who’d much rather Ralph Fiennes clean cut intellectual Charles van Doren takes his place. Showing an obvious disdain for quiz shows, Robert Redord’s assured directorial style, flitting between the stories of Stemple, van Doren and Rob Morrow’s personal investigator Richard Goodwin keeps the largely talky sections enjoyable and entertaining, whilst still grounding them into the seriousness of the issues at hand. This, with a great cast that also includes Hank Azaria, David Paymer, Martin Scorsese (!) and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances from the likes of Calista Flockhart, William Fichtner and the West Wing’s Timothy Busfield, makes a film far superior to the programmes it holds a mirror up to.
Choose film 8/10