“The Loudest Voice” does for the rise of Fox News what Adam McKay’s “Vice” did for Dick Cheney—it treats the saga as an American horror story, one that that will shock and disturb some viewers but also vindicate anyone rooting for the monsters. Part of its entertainment factor, aside from watching Russell Crowe in a robust performance as Roger Ailes, is to be in the boardrooms of a network that is shown to be founded on sexism, manipulation, and a condescending view of its audience. Want to see how things got even worse for journalistic integrity ten years ago? Want to learn where fake news came from? Do you care?
The series is co-created by “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy, and it has some of the journalistic verve of that Oscar-winning movie. Based on the New York Times articles by Gabriel Sherman, it’s initially about introducing Ailes as a juggernaut with the new Fox News Network in the mid ‘90s, who took his White House expertise and wisdom of television to the position of CEO. In episode one, he starts assembling a roster of talent in front of and behind the camera, and binds them in a work ethic that includes wearing American flag pins at all times and reclaiming “the real America.” With Ailes guiding his crew in monologues that are perhaps too shiny—his wisdom for TV is superhuman and never wrong—the mini-series creates an effective story hook of the power Ailes clings to, but also the ethics that were obliterated along the way.
With the stage set by the end of episode one, the journalism of “The Loudest Voice” is in trying to show the stories behind some of the greatest hits in crackpot Fox News theories, but ones that have nonetheless proliferated in comment sections. It tries to make a strong case about how Fox News poisoned (err, influenced) public opinion concerning weapons of mass destruction and the Iraq war, or President Obama's relationship to ACORN; in one of the more grotesque moments, we witness Ailes' motivations for Fox News to air the “falling man” footage of 9/11. Along with many moments in which his grotesque business decisions prove successful, "The Loudest Voice" gifts Ailes and others suits a self-awareness, like when they're laughing about Fox News personality E.D. Hill calling Barack and Michelle Obama bumping fists a “terrorist fist jab.” They crack up thinking about the ratings such racist BS will provide, while distancing themselves from its stupidity.
There are many ridiculous moments in “The Loudest Voice”—a key difference is that a storyteller like Adam McKay might try to approach it more critically, but this series merely serves them to you for mild effect. When you see “shock jock” Hannity bluster his way through a debate he’s losing, as acknowledged by Ailes and other Fox suits, it’s depressing more than it is morbidly funny. And that’s a case for a lot of the show, as it ushers viewers to the shadowy corners of an unpalatable news enterprise, and simply makes them spend time with a person who is presented to be as repulsive as he is successful. As someone who is interested in how the xenophobic sausage is made, "The Loudest Voice" held my attention, but its bland approach can be more frustrating than it is fascinating.
“The Loudest Voice” has two big things going for it—the consolidated story organization, which isn’t afraid to jump from 9/11 in one episode to President Obama’s election in the next, creating a vivid idea of the political landscape in between, and Crowe. Aided by impressive make-up that allows him to be as dominating as Ailes was, he spends many passages speaking softly yet acerbically, showing a person so obsessed with power that he takes it out on others, including the women that he dehumanizes. Often shown in dark rooms, the camera sometimes looking up at him with low angles, Crowe attains a truly monstrous presence as Ailes. He helps create the image of Roger at his core, a bloated man-baby with profound daddy issues who sees power over others as a drug, especially when things don't go exactly the way he wants them.
Outside of Crowe, the cast can be strong when they’re given the right material—Sienna Miller is progressively fascinating as his wife Beth, who realizes that she can make a Fox News-like impact with her local newspaper, while always being at the mercy of Roger’s career and freedom to do whatever he wants. The series also has a standout from Annabelle Wallis, who plays a woman named Laurie Luhn, one of Ailes’ key targets as a sexual predator—with just a few scenes she creates a vivid idea of the dehumanization she’s experienced because of Roger, unable to escape his clutches. We get a little sense of that from Naomi Watts, whose arc is just starting by the end of episode four and I don’t feel like I can fairly comment on, despite knowing the key part she’ll play as whistleblower Gretchen Carlson. Seth McFarlane also appears in a weak spot in the show as Ailes’ “right-hand man” Brian Lewis, but his scenes showing his ability to intimidate possible Fox News snitches are fleeting, however tinged with laughable tough-guy dialogue.
It’s a good thing that Roger Ailes is dead, as it’s also tough to imagine him watching “The Loudest Voice” and feeling the way he should about all of it. At least in its first four episodes, it’s not exactly a take-down or a damnation, even though it lays clear his history as a sexual predator and master manipulator. It’s all meant to be “interesting,” and this series exemplifies the toothlessness in basing a movie around that adjective—eventually the tougher parts of your content get away from you, and we’re watching a series that’s not saying much other than repeating disheartening details we know, this time with behind-the-scenes horror. Maybe “The Loudest Voice” gets more vicious in the last three episodes in its seven-episode run-time, but such vengeance will likely have the effect of watching the show overall—too little, too late.
Four episodes screened for review.