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 taking place on "Twenty-One" goes to talk to Charlie.
After getting acquainted a few times, Van Doren invites Dick to his family's house in Connecticut where they are celebrating Mark Van Doren's birthday. Van Doren is afraid of what Goodwin represents and how he could end up in a great deal of trouble if Goodwin cracks the case. By inviting him to the family home, he is making himself feel safe and less vulnerable than say if they were alone together in New York City. After a lunch that is very relaxed and laid back, Van Doren goes sailing with Goodwin to discuss the real reason why Goodwin was there. Van Doren starts to level with Goodwin and in doing so tries to justify to himself his role on "Twenty-One." He talks about the letters he gets in the mail and how he and Dan Enright have made education fun again.
Van Doren continues to give reasons for why Herbert Stempel's accusations were baseless and Goodwin begins to agree with him. Van Doren gets extremely stressed out by the whole situation revolving around "Twenty-One." He goes to his family's house again in Connecticut and has a heart to heart talk with his father. Almost breaking down and having to restrain himself from telling his father the whole story about how the show is fixed, he changes the subject because he is not ready to divulge such information. His whole demeanor is starting to change, as unlike earlier in the film when Charlie was seeking attention, he begins avoiding the crowds. When he arrives at the NBC studios he asks the driver to pull around the back so he doesn't have to deal with all the people waiting for him at the entrance. Another turning point in the film is the last episode of "Twenty-One" that Van Doren is a contestant on.
Van Doren realizes he can no longer handle the stress of being involved with the show and decides to throw the game so he can get on with his life. Yet just when he thinks he is free, he is seduced once again by both monetary gain and instant fame. The executives need to keep Van Doren affiliated with the network because he is still extremely popular and want to ensure they can continue to market him. In order to do so they bring out the Today Show host Dave Garroway who offers Van Doren a position with a salary that he simply cannot refuse. Van Doren does not even hesitate and ends up signing the contract on the spot. This is another example of moral seduction used by NBC to lure the innocent Van Doren into another position where they can benefit from him.
He goes home and gets the best night of sleep in a long time. Van Doren even begins celebrating; making it blatantly obvious that he answered the question incorrectly on purpose. He goes on to say that he felt like he was holding his breath for the entire broadcast of the show. Goodwin asks him man to man if he got the answers to the questions and Van Doren doesn't know how to respond.
Eventually Goodwin gets him to break down and Van Doren begins to rationalize his decision to cheat on the show. Van Doren rattles of his reasons for cheating, ranging from the money to the fame to being on the Today show. He asks Goodwin if he would do the same thing and Goodwin doesn't even hesitate when he says he would not. These two men are at the same stage in life, both having lives full of potential but only one is willing to work at it to achieve sucess.
This is tragic in the sense that Van Doren doesn't even realize that what he did was wrong, as he continues to justify his actions. Goodwin tells Van Doren to stay out of the public spotlight for awhile but he doesn't do that. After the head of NBC asks Van Doren to make a public statement about the Senate Committee hearings and Van Doren obliges. This leads to Goodwin having to subpoena Van Doren, which forces Charlie to have to testify before a Senate hearing. The next day Van Doren heads over to Columbia University to talk to his father about his wrongdoings.
He says that he simply cannot tell the truth in the Senate hearing and his father cannot understand. Charlie breaks down and admits he "was one of those frauds." Mark Van Doren is completely shocked and takes aback by this revelation as he goes from standing to sitting in his seat with a blank look on his face. Eventually Charlie tries to justify his actions and says that it was his fault and he will be the one that suffers. Yet Mark drives home the point that they will all suffer because they all bear the same name. Van Doren is summoned to Washington D. C.
and his parents come with him to provide him their moral support. He delivers a heart felt statement about how he has cheated on "Twenty-One" and what he has learned as a result of it. The members of the committee commend him for his honesty and "soul-searching" confession. Unfortunately Van Doren is not commended by one of the members who blatantly say that Van Doren should not be praised for simply telling the truth. Van Doren is shocked by this response and doesn't know how to respond. The hearing ends and the Van Doren family leave the building surrounded by a mob of media.
They begin to bombard him with questions and then go on to tell him that he has been fired by NBC and that Columbia has asked for his resignation. It is finally at this point that the entire Van Doren family realizes the magnitude of Charlie's actions. All signs of life leave Mark Van Doren as his mouth drops and it appears as if he is about to have a heart attack. Even if he doesn't realize it, Charlie has committed a patricide, something that was eerily foreshadowed earlier in the film.
Of course Mark Van Doren is still alive, all the hopes and dreams for his son are no longer obtainable and that has essentially killed him. While all of this is transpiring, a colleague of Goodwin's congratulates him for bringing down Van Doren. Goodwin replies almost shocked, saying that, "I wanted to get television; the truth is television is going to get us." Goodwin is quite vague and leaves this line for the viewer to interpret. Perhaps he means that television holds the power to ruin lives of even those who are the least likely to be morally seduced by it. Charles Van Doren's life is completely tragic as in his attempt to better his life he ends up making it worse than when he started "Twenty-One." The money he made and the fame that he achieved could have been accomplished through hard work and determination like his father. He was driven by the opportunity to practically do nothing and be credited as a hero.
In a way though, Van Doren is successful, as his ultimate goal is to be more than his father's son, but unfortunately he obtained notoriety rather than honored distinction. Dick Goodwin is the antithesis of Charlie, a man who could look temptation in the eye and simply turn away, knowing that simply giving in is completely wrong. Who knows what Charles Van Doren's life could have been if he had stayed on the path that he was on rather than succumbing to the temptations of easy fortune and fame that came with "Twenty-One.".