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The Ethics of a Movie on the Quiz Show Scandal

September 19, 1994|DON ENRIGHT | Don Enright is an Emmy Award-winning producer of movies for television. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter

When the quiz show scandal broke, my sister was 10 years old, and I myself was 8. Almost overnight, our lives changed.

As the producer of the wildly popular "Twenty-One"--and five other network shows--our father had been the toast of the industry. As his bright, well-behaved children, we had enjoyed a modest schoolyard notoriety. But now our father had suddenly become a villain, excoriated everywhere as the living symbol of all that was wrong with the country. And many kids were no longer allowed to play with me.

Many other kids--and many adults--were, for years after, just casually nasty.

Of course, in watching my father go down, I was taught about more than social cruelty. Among many other things, I learned to have a healthy skepticism for the official story. Yes, Dan Enright fixed his quiz shows, but shows had been fixed since the the beginning of quiz show history. As I saw my father take the fall--and watched so many others, equally culpable, scurry away, free--I learned much, since confirmed, about public executions and more about sanctimonious hypocrisy.

And now life has brought us "Quiz Show," the movie ("They Conned America," Calendar, Aug. 28).

Written by a former film critic, who calls it his "revenge on television," and based on the memoirs of its hero, a young congressional investigator, the film is explicitly intended as a public morality lesson. It was produced and directed by Robert Redford.

"The film raises the question of ethics," he told the New York Times. "Are they going to keep the concept of ethics . . . . Or will it disappear from the language, like shame? "

Someone needs to give the answer to Robert Redford.

While in interviews Redford admits to changing some facts, on screen "Quiz Show" is explicitly represented to be a true story. It uses real names in its promotion, it uses real faces. At the same time, the movie carries none of the familiar fictional content disclaimers. Not even at the very end in tiny letters. No, Redford hands down his movie as revealed truth, re-created.

But it's not. "Quiz Show," the movie, is rigged. Fixed. Just like its television counterpart. And for precisely the same reason. Played straight, the story would be much more dramatically complicated and much less morally convenient. The real truth is that Redford has sacrificed truth--not to say decency--to make his show a more dramatic, more compelling and, ultimately, more successful product for mass entertainment.

Precisely the same offense for which they once, quite properly, condemned Dan Enright.

But the irony is lost on Robert Redford. His fix is in from the opening titles--a flamboyant sequence portrayed as part of "Twenty-One" but actually lifted from a rival program. People will ask: "Does it matter? Does that really change anything?" I don't know. Maybe not.

Perhaps it doesn't matter that Redford creates whole scenes from whole cloth, drastically alters the sequence of events, forever transforms my father and his associates into malign caricatures, offensive and unrecognizable. The man who, as a deputy district attorney, really investigated "Twenty-One" has told the New York Times that this film is a "tawdry hoax" and that much of its portrayal of Dan Enright--bribing the court to suppress evidence, tricking a contestant into rigging--is wholly fictitious. Yet apparently, as a media-certified public moralist, Redford qualifies for an unrestricted dramatic license.

Because, though I have a videotape in my office of the actual show episode that Redford dramatizes in his movie, so far, nobody has asked to see it. Maybe truth only really counts when scandal is in season.

"The concept of shame," he lamented to the New York Times, "carries no weight anymore." Yet shame sure weighed heavily on Dan Enright. He lived in his shame until the day he died, trying for years to make amends, haunted by his history in everything he did. At his funeral, hundreds of people mourned him.

But, oh, how my father's great shame now rests so lightly, on the broad shoulders of Robert Redford.

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