'The Loudest Voice' Shows Former Fox News Boss Roger Ailes as a Gross Villain
Over halfway into its first episode, Showtime's The Loudest Voice, a seven-part mini-series about the repugnant life and sinister influence of Fox News behind-the-scenes maestro Roger Ailes, runs into a tricky dilemma: It's incredibly difficult to dramatize the distinct set of "skills," or some might say "dark genius," of an abusive, bull-headed media executive like Roger Ailes. He's not a political leader, a military commander, a criminal mastermind, or an artist; he's a crappy boss at a dumb company. Played by a heavily made-up Russell Crowe, looking remarkably different from his trim Gladiator days, the former Republican operative barks out instructions and orders to his scrambling employees in the control room during a test rehearsal before the debut of Fox News in 1996. The stakes, the show desperately wants to convince you, are high.
Frustrated and sweaty, Ailes screams because a female co-host wears pants instead of a more leg-revealing skirt, yells because a Halloween graphic onscreen is green instead of the more traditionally spooky orange, and goes ballistic because a dog, brought on the set for a low-stakes human interest segment, has shit all over the floor. The whole situation is ridiculous, ripe for comedy and satire, but Ailes's fixes are mostly superficial, deranged attempts to make a trashy product (a 24-hour news channel) more addictive, and The Loudest Voice mostly plays the sequence for tick-tock, procedural melodrama. It's like watching an episode of Aaron Sorkin's tiresome The Newsroom if the characters were even more craven, less witty, and unrepentantly evil. Who would want to watch that?
Based on a revelatory 2014 biography of Ailles and a subsequent series of New York Magazine articles by journalist Gabriel Sherman exposing his sexually predatory behavior, The Loudest Voice struggles to find a strong stylistic angle or a nuanced moral stance on its subject. Sherman's book is an impressive reporting feat, constructing a counter-history of the last 50 years of America with Ailes at the key inflection points in the rise of destructive right-wing politics and the dawn of cable news hysteria. Sherman gets quotes, scoops, and bits of secret history that shock and awe in equal measure, finding sources willing to talk about a powerful man known for his vindictive streak and cruel PR tactics. Despite having Sherman's work as a resource, the TV version of the story feels oddly inert, unsure of how fair and balanced it should be in its portrayal of such a clear-cut villain.
Besides the drab visual realities of the TV news business, the show, which was developed by Sherman, Spotlight director Tom McCarthy, and UnREAL writer Alex Metcalf, must also confront the challenge of condensing such a bizarre life into a coherent narrative. The series begins with Ailes' death in 2017 and his defiant voiceover describing himself as "right-wing, paranoid, and fat" before flashing back to the launch of Fox News in 1997. Fresh off a bumpy exit from CNBC, where he served as the president of the network, Ailes teams with Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney) to form a network that will appeal to a "niche" audience by providing "an American message wrapped up in a conservative viewpoint." Quickly, he hits on a popular formula: tabloid excess delivered by wild-eyed true believers.
The decision to set each episode in a specific year sounds like a smart one, a clever way to organize events into Wiki-ready info-dumps, but it ends up making what I saw of the show feel disjointed. (Only the first four of the seven episodes were made available for review.) The second episode jumps to 2001, covering the political fallout of 9/11 and the flag-waving ramp-up to the Iraq War; the third episode leaps forward to 2008, chronicling Ailes' conspiratorial hostility toward the Obama campaign and eventual presidency; episode four slows down a bit by only moving into 2009, setting up a side plot about Ailes purchasing the local paper in his town to occupy his wife, Elizabeth (Sienna Miller). There's plenty of incident, accompanied by news footage and archly deployed pop songs, but very little suspense or insight.
As with any ripped-from-the-headlines story, the control of the tone and scope of the narrative are incredibly important. In Sherman's biography, Ailes' battle with the residents of Putnam, New York, which he waged through the pages of the local paper he controlled and used as a personal bullhorn, is like a perverse Billy Wilder movie, the tale of a tyrannical big shot going to war with his neighbors just for the hell of it. It would make a fascinating 90-minute parable-like film. Chopped up into pieces and tucked into a longer miniseries, placed alongside backroom meetings with Obama strategist David Axelrod (David Cromer) and painful portrayals of the sexual harassment of Gretchen Carlson (a so-far underused Naomi Watts), the Putnam drama feels frivolous. You can imagine the easily bored Ailes himself wanting to cut it.
All of this comes with the expected Trump-era foreshadowing, hit the hardest when Ailes makes a speech that ends with a thundering commitment to "make America great again." (Sounds familiar, right?) Undoubtably, the circumstances that led to the creation of the feedback loop that exists between the current President and his favorite TV channel is certainly worth puzzling over. For those who never watched anti-FOX documentaries during the Bush era, the show's retelling of recent historical events might actually provide a useful historical roadmap to how the nation arrived at this point; for others, it might make you righteously ticked off in the way your favorite liberal newscast or podcast does. It's trafficking in a form of smug catharsis that's widely available these days. Fair and Balanced, a Fox News drama starring Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman as Carlson, arrives later this year and is in the same vein, clearly with hopes of getting some awards-season attention.
There are plenty of options for Ailes-adjacent stories already available as well. HBO's saga of a Murdoch-like family, Succession, with its combination of family tragedy and comedic cruelty, and Adam McKay's recent Oscar-favorite Vice, with its mix of make-up-powered performances and wiseass critique, are the most obvious comparison points for a show like Loudest Voice. Familiar faces from McKay's movie, like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, pop up here. The appearance of Murdoch's rich son Lachlan, walking right into a conflict with the unimpressed Ailles, will likely make you think of Kendall Roy. These are harsh, absurdist power struggles for audiences glued to their phones in case the world ends with the next push notification.
But beyond the superficial focus on the intersection between Washington insiders and media executives, Loudest Voice doesn't actually resemble Succession or Vice in the ways that matter. It's a more straightforward docudrama in the vein of Oliver Stone's forgettable W or those HBO TV movies about recent elections. The writing is clumsy, pinging between events in a haphazard manner, and the direction is often more than a little cheesy: awkward lookalikes of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck appear in scenes that play more like liberal kitsch than hard-hitting drama. As the series grinds on, Crowe's boorish, domineering performance becomes the main reason to keep watching, but with so many options to choose from, it's unlikely his gravely monologues will convince you to stick with the series to its likely grim conclusion. In the prestige TV game, being loud only gets you so far.