The circumstances of Roger Ailes’s life, his professional history and role as the architect of FOX News, and the many allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct that led to his ouster from the conservative cable news network, primes the audience of The Loudest Voice for a portrayal of the man as something of a human turd. It’s surprising, then, that the limited series starring Russell Crowe in heavy makeup and facial prosthetics positions its depiction of the “newsman” as more a tale of outright villainy. It is less a biopic of a controversial right-wing figure than it is a pulpy satire told from the baddie's perspective. Another way to look at The Loudest Voice is as a sequel of sorts to last year’s clumsy Vice, albeit with less outward disdain for its core audience.
Adapted from the Gabriel Sherman book The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News - and Divided a Country by Spotlight director Tom McCarthy and others, The Loudest Voice lives up to its title, beginning with Ailes’s death before segueing into a posthumous narration by Crowe that swiftly cuts to Ailes in the mid-‘90s, just before he was let go by then CNBC and subsequently started FOX News. Crowe’s narration, and his performance throughout the series, slathers on a thick New York accent like so much artery-clogging butter on the tall stack of pancakes Ailes is seen eating in what is the audience's second introduction to the man. While Crowe as Ailes is as defiant about criticism of his conservatism as he is the considerable heft he carries on his body, the series makes an early correlation between the man's overriding appetites and the eventual end of his career and life.
Before the first hour has ended, Ailes is ousted from what will become MSNBC, finagles a loophole into a non-compete clause that allows him to launch FOX News without breaching the terms of his severance package from his former employer, and successfully brings the conservative news network to life. It’s a whirlwind premiere that quickly demonstrates where its interests lie: in the seedier bits of Ailes’s personal life as well as his frequent explosive confrontations with Rupert Murdoch (played here by Simon McBurney, who is almost unrecognizable due to the heavy facial prosthetics he’s wearing) prior to and after FOX News goes live.
It soon becomes clear that The Loudest Voice won't make a clear distinction between Ailes as the bloviating bully and mastermind behind the network’s approach to “Fair and Balanced” news coverage, and the way in which he conducts his personal life. The lack of such distinct is made evident in how the series itself is structured, and the deliberately scrambled manner in which it jumps through moments in time, moving in and out of a specific chronology as if Ailes himself were watching his life flash before his eyes. The result is a patchwork of significant events, one that mostly eschews subtlety and employs a direct approach that can be summed up as "on the nose".
That’s not to say the series doesn’t aim to have fun in saying what it wants to say about Ailes. Crowe is clearly enjoying himself channelling a lecherous blusterer who has wielded so much power for so long he’s begun to think himself as untouchable, if not outright invincible. In particular, the series revels in the inequitable power dynamic with regard to Ailes’s relationships with women. It is similar across the board, from Ailes’s treatment of his wife Beth (Sienna Miller — again, nearly unrecognizable under all that makeup) to former FOX News staffer Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis, Peaky Blinders) and most prominently, Gretchen Carlson (Naomi Watts). The scenes are filmed in such a way as to position Ailes as a larger-than-life sleazeball and conniver, walking slowly down a hotel corridor behind Luhn, whispering orders in one of the most salacious and unsettling moments of the series.
As such, the eventual downfall of Roger Ailes feels inevitable, which calls into question the decision to have The Loudest Voice comprise seven hours of television in order to get there. While Showtime’s limited series does have a sense of comprehensiveness on its side, not unlike last year’s very good Escape at Dannemora, after the first three hours (which were presented to critics ahead of the premiere), some doubts arise as to the necessity of the series’ final runtime.
Nevertheless, Showtime will likely have gotten its money’s worth by casting not only Crowe, but also Watts and Miller. While Crowe delivers a necessary tempestuous energy, Watts and Miller bring a sense of empathy and gravity to the proceedings that are equally important. Ultimately, though, despite its many strong performances and energetic (almost jittery) presentation, The Loudest Voice finds it difficult to offer much substance beyond being a greatest hits collection of a controversial figure.
The Loudest Voice premieres Sunday, June 30 @10pm on Showtime.