The Loudest Voice preaches to the already converted.
Aided by prosthetics, a fat suit and a really bad hair piece, Russell Crowe transforms himself into Roger Ailes as he chronicles Ailes’ rise to power within News Corporation and the Republican party in the seven-episode Showtime miniseries.
With a gruff, gravelly voice and a distinct waddle, Ailes is gluttonous (one of the first shots shows him pouring syrup over his entire breakfast), overtly racist and casually misogynistic (“Pull back? What are you a fucking cheerleader on a first date?” he utters during a staff meeting).
The series, based on the book The Loudest Voice in the Room, shows how a confluence of events—from the September 11 attacks to the election of Barack Obama—conspired to make Ailes one of the most powerful people in the news media and in the Republican party.
But the series plays out as more of an impressionist character study, assuming we already know the lurid story, especially when it comes to the women surrounding Ailes. This is particularly jarring in its treatment of Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis), a Fox News booker who had a long-term relationship with Ailes and accused him of sexual abuse. (Luhn also sued Showtime for how this series would portray her.) So while we see Laurie’s fragile psyche and how she is falling apart, we never see how and why she got involved with Ailes in the first place. You’ll need Google to fill in the blanks.
Sienna Miller is equally unrecognizable as Ailes’ wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth works for Fox News until one day he comes home and tells her, “This isn’t going to work Beth. You need to choose. Me or the job.” A few scenes later, she is feeding her infant son Zachary in his high chair so we know the choice she made. But once Zachary is in school, she is anxious to get back to work. “I had lunch with Mrs. Ailes. She needs a project,” Roger’s longtime secretary Judy (Aleska Palladino) tells him. But besides sharing a like-minded conservatism, it’s hard to understand what Elizabeth sees in Roger and why she stays. It’s far too simplistic to assume she stays because of the lush lifestyle Ailes affords her. Her project soon becomes a local paper which Ailes uses as his bully pulpit. “We both want Zach to grow up in a town that reflects American values,” she tells her husband.
Judy, who sits quietly in most meetings and seems mostly tasked with getting people on the phone, doesn’t fare much better. Four episodes in and I had no read on her character and what drove her loyalty to Ailes.
Perhaps most shocking is how little we see of Gretchen Carlson (Naomi Watts), the Fox & Friends anchor who brought Ailes’ years of sexual abuse and harassment to light and ended his reign at Fox News. “You know I’ve fucked two Miss Americas. Not that one yet,” he says of Carlson. That’s right, he’s a charmer.
What The Loudest Voice does make clear is the influence Ailes has had on our pop culture and our current political climate. According to the series, he’s the one that had everyone wear American flag pins, he is the one who fueled the Obama rumors (“He was 100% raised in a Muslim school,” he declares sans any evidence), he’s the one who made fake news so acceptable and he was in the back pocket of the Bush administration after September 11th, reporting on later proved non-existent weapons of mass destruction. In a speech in his hometown of Warren, Ohio, he says, “Together we can make America great again.” (One character laughs at the idea of Donald Trump running for President; these kind of “let’s all laugh at how naïve we were” jokes never play well.)
Also missing is why those who worked for Ailes remained so loyal. At one point, he calls everyone in at 4 a.m. in the morning. “There’s a Foot Locker right across the road. They might be hiring,” he says when someone complains. He berates staff and embarrasses them. But those like (now former) Fox News Public Relations Chief Brian Lewis (Seth MacFarlane) remain steadfast. When staff does confront him—about making things up about Obama (“He’s a community organizer which makes him a communist”) or when he wants to investigate Rupert Murdoch’s (Simon McBurney) wife—their attempts are feeble. Ailes wins stand-offs with Murdoch because Fox News is so lucrative for his corporation, but why did others stay with him for so long? What engendered such loyalty and devotion?
Crowe disappears into Ailes and tries to offer some insight into what shaped him. It’s a tour-de-force, Emmy bait performance for sure. Yet Ailes remains repugnant and fairly one-dimensional. Upon meeting a Saudi prince who is one of News Corp’s primary shareholders, he says, “I’m just glad you didn’t hit any buildings on your way in.” When he does visit his hometown and we get a peek at his humble upbringings, he tells the story of his abusive dad who said, “You can’t trust anyone.” Still, the makings of the man remain unclear. We learn more about his seemingly single-handed impact on our current political climate but not about those who supported his rise to power.
In the story of his life, Ailes remains the loudest voice.
The Loudest Voice premieres Sunday June 30 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.