tv review

The Loudest Voice Is All Bluster and Little Insight

Photo: JoJo Whilden/Showtime

The loudest voice in the Showtime series The Loudest Voice belongs, of course, to Roger Ailes, the late, former chairman and CEO of Fox News. As played by Russell Crowe in this drama based on Gabriel Sherman’s book The Loudest Voice in the Room, as well as the reporting Sherman did here at New York magazine, Ailes is an openly conservative newsman prone to blustery blowups and advocating for programming defined more by spectacle than facts. The seven-part miniseries is designed to track his personal evolution and the evolution of Fox News from upstart cable-news outlier to the narrative driver for the Republican party. But The Loudest Voice, as developed by Tom McCarthy, director of Spotlight, and Alex Metcalf, whose credits include Sharp Objects and UnREAL, is so focused on the who, what, when, and where of that story that it neglects to dig sufficiently into the why and how.

The Loudest Voice is most interested in the surface of things. The first episode, which airs Sunday night, begins in 1995 as Ailes is leaving CNBC and gets tapped by Rupert Murdoch to give birth to Fox News, a network Ailes & Co. build from the ground up in every possible sense. (In one scene, Ailes walks the space that will house the new studios. It is located in a recently closed Sam Goody store.) During an initial presentation presided over by Murdoch and run by News Corp. executives, Ailes interrupts and asks who the target audience for Fox News will be. “Everyone” is the response. “I think it is conservatives,” he proposes, noting that cable television is all about niches. And with that ahead-of-its-time observation, things take off in mildly interesting but mostly standard biopic fashion.

The three episodes that follow jump forward several years to capture different moments in the Fox News timeline and are more energetic simply because of their in medias res quality. The second episode focuses on Fox’s response to 9/11 and the moments immediately after, when Ailes begins to work more directly with members of the Bush administration, while the third and fourth hopscotch to 2008 and 2009, when Barack Obama runs for and assumes the presidency and Ailes tilts further off the “fair and balanced” deep end into spreading untruths and racist conspiracies. The problem with this episodic “moments in time” approach is that there’s a lot of space in between these moments that’s never explored and therefore makes Ailes’s shift toward dangerous stridency harder to understand.

The Loudest Voice uses repetition to illustrate that Ailes’s moral compass has gone totally kablooey by the late aughts. “This is going to be a day that defines us as a country and as a people, and we just all need to be at our very best,” he says during a news meeting on September 11, 2001, shortly after the towers have fallen and the Pentagon has been hit. It sounds noble. But when he says “Let’s make sure we’re at our very best” again in 2008, after urging his staff to dig up whatever negative information they can about Obama, he sounds like an unself-aware lunatic.

What accounts for the change? The series hints at a number of things, including Ailes’s staunch loyalty to the Republican Party, his abuse of power, his idealization of the “good old days” in America, and, not to be underestimated, his racism: “George Soros and his left-leaning buddies have decided to put an affirmative-action hire into the White House,” he says during one of his Obama tirades. But the show never connects the dots more fully or provides the kind of insight that might offer a new perspective on one of the most legendary, polarizing figures in the history of news media.

Crowe certainly tackles the part with zeal and shows us sides of the man — including his occasional gentleness and his wiseass sense of humor — that make him something more complicated than a Republican villain. The actor is really at his best when Ailes displays his anger and, well, gets loud, whether that’s during a shouting match with Murdoch’s son Lachlan or during a town meeting in Putnam County, New York, that he turns into a political and personal showdown. As the episodes progress, Crowe’s twitching eye and gritted teeth convey how much rage is boiling inside Ailes’s imposing frame.

As good as Crowe is, he does have to engage in another kind of battle, one between himself and the prosthetics applied to his face to make it appear more jowly. This is an issue for other actors, too, notably Sienna Miller, who plays Ailes’s wife, Beth, and has been given a more prominent nose and heavier cheeks that, honestly, don’t reflect what Beth Ailes actually looks like. Miller gives a very solid, grounded performance. Yet, through no fault of her own, it’s hard to focus on it when the sight of her face keeps calling to mind images of Lea Thompson in her old, alcoholic Lorraine McFly make-up in Back to the Future.

Doubly perplexing is that some of the most well-known faces at Fox and in Republican politics — Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Karl Rove — are portrayed by actors who don’t resemble the real people. Their roles in The Loudest Voice aren’t huge, at least in the initial four episodes offered to critics in advance, and certainly performers don’t need to be dead ringers for the real people they play, but when a coup is being staged on Miller’s face by prosthetics and pancake makeup, it’s jarring to see Josh McDermitt, a.k.a. Eugene from The Walking Dead, being offered as Beck. (The makeup team does a much more persuasive job of transforming Simon McBurney into a replica of Rupert Murdoch.)

Fortunately, Naomi Watts, who first appears in the third episode as Gretchen Carlson, the Fox & Friends co-host and one of the women who would eventually accuse Ailes of sexual harassment, is left alone on the prosthetic front. In the initial episodes, we get just a hint of the kind of treatment Carlson gets from the big boss. “Twirl,” he commands, after a one-on-one meeting between the two, an order she reluctantly fulfills. Ailes’s status as a misogynist and habitual abuser of women is conveyed more strongly through his relationship with another woman, Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis), the Fox News booker and event planner who acted as a sort of on-demand sex slave for Ailes for years. She filed a lawsuit against the network earlier this year, alleging an attempt to discredit her; she also filed one against Showtime on the premise that The Loudest Voice would depict her as an accomplice to Ailes’s misdeeds who helped him find other women to fill similar roles. For the record, in the initial four episodes, she doesn’t come across as such. It’s made very clear that she’s a victim and that the years of being kept under Ailes’s thumb are undoing her. But in keeping with the show’s limited narrative approach, we get only general ideas about why she continues to tolerate this disturbing dynamic.

If certain Ailes qualities sound familiar — conservative conspiracy theorism, harassment of women, a dislike of Obama — that’s certainly on purpose. Ailes has a lot in common with his friend Donald Trump that, presumably, The Loudest Voice will dissect further in its later episodes. Even in these initial installments, though, the parallels are drawn. During a speech delivered in his hometown of Warren, Ohio, Ailes speaks of all the things immigrants are taking away from Americans and even uses the phrase “Make America great again.”

The Loudest Voice is a reminder of how relevant Ailes is to what’s happening in our current political climate — but we don’t need a reminder. What we need from a series like this is some deeper perspective on why Ailes was able to turn a cable-news network into a propaganda machine that played a major role in getting Trump elected. Considering that this is a show about a man who doesn’t feel beholden to the truth, it’s ironic that The Loudest Voice is so interested in presenting the facts that it doesn’t make time to mine them for more significant truths.

The Loudest Voice Is All Bluster and Little Insight