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.