I remember, when the second Batman film came out, how everyone was struck by the depiction of pure evil in the character of the Joker. My dad, a philosopher often throwing a wrench in the common consensus, commented on how that’s not what evil really looks like. It’s a glorification of evil, he would say. Real evil in the world is far less spectacular, far more, if you will, innocuous.
The remark came back to me recently when I was watching the movie Quiz Show (currently available on Netflix). Set in the 1950s, directed by Robert Redford and starring Ralph Fiennes as the gifted son of gifted parents, Quiz Show gives a glimpse of how easy it is slide into wrongdoing, and how terribly difficult it is to emerge.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away to those of you who aren’t already familiar with the story. You should go watch it. It’s based on real life events, which in the case of most movies makes me thrilled to discover, but in this case, downright disheartened. The movie is a portrait of how a web of small offenses converge and conspire to destroy. And to be clear, this is no spectacular production of destruction--nothing comes crashing down, there is no howling, no deaths. At least not in the literal sense. On another level, lives do come crashing down. A promising career is destroyed. A disappointed father howls at the wreckage of his progeny, but all that the viewer sees is the buckling of the old man’s knees when he realizes what has been lost.
Then there’s the slow death of a life lived in regret.
I know I’m not really selling this movie! The drama of it all is quite fun to watch. It unfolds with great style, and Ralph Fiennes is terribly charming in his role as Charles van Doren. But in the end, it’s a sobering film. It provokes self-reflection: Would you have done as Charles van Doren did? Doubtless many of us would. And the horrible thing is, he wasn’t alone -- he was joined by dozens of others in a vast conspiracy. When he does eventually decide to emerge from the web and "do the right thing," it’s not surprising that the other “bad guys” simply duck their heads, carrying on and leaving him to take the fire.
Now, film is its own medium, and should to some extent be appreciated and judged within that context. For instance, I often think the critique that a movie is “not as good as the book” is invalid. Movies shouldn’t be like the book, because there are a whole separate set of rules, and narrative strategies, and artistic decisions driving the machine. In the case of Quiz Show, although based on real life events, part of the picture is missing. After its release, there were various objections to the film’s fidelity to the facts. One of the issues raised was that, at the end of the movie, it states Van Doren never taught again. That’s not exactly true. Van Doren continued to teach throughout his life, and he also went on to have quite a successful career, working, among other things, as the editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Setting the real life events aside, the film is quite powerful as it stands. The message is an important one: Evil typically presents itself as a slippery slope, with the first step disguised as a minor indiscretion. Once you begin down that path, you find yourself caught in a web that is hard to pull yourself out from without destroying the fabric of your life. But it’s good to balance the drama of the film with the real life facts: there is hope for the man who repents. After failure, it's possible to pick yourself up and rebuild. You can still make something beautiful of your life -- but it will always be tinged with loss.
If you have time, read Van Doren's essay offering "All the Answers," which he penned for The New Yorker in 2008, after decades of silence on the matter.