Early on in The Loudest Voice, Fox News founder Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe, buried under layers of prosthetic fat) summons his employees for an emergency 4 a.m. meeting. The network is just a few months away from launch, and no one is ready. After singling out several employees for their poor performance (“You’re walking around like f—ing Mr. Magoo looking for his d–k in that control room!”), Ailes suddenly pivots to rally mode. Fox News has an opportunity, he tells his staff, to speak to an audience that the cable news media ignores. As Ailes talks — about loyalty, Fox News’ “mission,” about “fairness and balance” — his voice rises, and the camera pulls tighter and tighter, until his face fills the screen, an angry, worked-up white guy yelling about “the real America.”
It’s an apt metaphor for Fox News, but it also speaks to the primary problem with Showtime’s limited series. While The Loudest Voice is a star-studded recreation of Ailes’ most infamous moments as an alleged serial sexual harasser and brilliant political panderer, it also just feels like visual rhetoric — something that looks good to awards voters but doesn’t really say anything new about its subject.
Each episode of the seven-part series (based on Gabriel Sherman’s book The Loudest Voice in the Room, and his reporting for New York Magazine) centers on a key milestone in Ailes’ career, from leaving CNBC to launch Fox News in 1996 to his resignation, amid a wave of sexual misconduct allegations, in 2016. A onetime media consult to Nixon and Reagan, Ailes reshaped America’s cable news narrative by finding an underserved niche — conservatives — and wooing them like voters. “We need to program directly to the viewer who is predisposed to buying what we’re trying to sell,” he tells News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney). “In politics, it’s called turning out the base.”
Spoiler alert: It works. Aided by his inner circle of loyalists — including his sphinx-like personal assistant Judy Laterza (Aleksa Palladino), and PR exec Brian Lewis (the suitably smarmy Seth MacFarlane) — Ailes begins feeding his appetite for power, for women, for power over women. He uses Fox News to further the Bush’s administration’s post 9/11 agenda; during the 2008 election, he pushes for dubious, racially-charged stories about the Obamas (remember the “terrorist fist jab”?), over his staff’s increasingly stunned objections; he openly ogled and belittled Fox & Friends anchor Gretchen Carlson (Naomi Watts). The Loudest Voice depicts some of the most lurid allegations against Ailes as art-house noir: In one disturbing sequence, Ailes orders Fox News booker Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis) to perform oral sex on him, and we see her face, grim and haunted, through the lens of his hand-held camcorder. Meanwhile, Ailes’ wife Beth (a completely unrecognizable Sienna Miller), worships him from their sprawling suburban estate, truly (or willfully?) oblivious to his philandering.
Crowe is excellent as Ailes; the actor all but disappears inside his synthetic girth, and he toggles effectively between Ailes’ avuncular charm and apoplectic rage. But did we really need the Oscar winner to spend hours in makeup each day to remind us that Roger Ailes was a bad dude? After three episodes, I found myself wishing the show had approached Ailes’ story from a different perspective, one that might offer fresh insight — Carlson’s, perhaps, or better yet, that of the mysterious gatekeeper Laterza. But The Loudest Voice isn’t really interested in learning anything from Ailes’ history — it’s simply content to repeat it. Grade: B-