The Showtime limited series “The Loudest Voice” subjects the late Roger Ailes to the same kind of rough-and-tumble, take-no-prisoners, make-no-apologies tactics Ailes perfected and repeatedly relied upon to turn the Fox News Channel into a cable news powerhouse with a hard-right slant, notwithstanding that “Fair and Balanced” slogan.
Given Ailes’ history of monstrous sexual harassment of a number of co-anchors and producers (which eventually led to his downfall at the network he created), and his admittedly successful but controversial and often appalling and unethical strategies as a television executive, we understand why the series (based on Gabriel Sherman’s book “The Loudest Voice in the Room” and Sherman’s writings for New York Magazine) would eschew subtlety and go for the knockout punch in scene after scene, episode after episode.
The result is a slick, well-made, engrossing, at times borderline pulp biopic, highlighted by a ferocious, screen-filling and appropriately theatrical performance by a nearly unrecognizable Russell Crowe, who all but disappears under the makeup and prosthetics and padding as the conniving, scheming, duplicitous, combative and intimidating Ailes.
My guess is you’ll be hard-pressed to find a review of “The Loudest Voice” that doesn’t mention Christian Bale and “Vice,” and how this is the second time in less than a year we’ve seen a great actor scale the hairline way back, don glasses, wear prosthetics and bulk-enhancing padding and adopt an American accent to portray a polarizing conservative figure. (Obviously I couldn’t resist.)
Both performances are great, but whereas Adam McKay’s serio-comic approach to “Vice” afforded Bale the opportunity to play certain moments for dark laughs, Crowe is all business and chillingly effective and pure villain as Ailes, the former producer of the talk-variety program “The Mike Douglas Show” and onetime Nixon and Reagan campaign strategist who was hired by Rupert Murdoch to launch the Fox News Channel in the mid-1990s and forever changed the television landscape and greatly influenced the nature of political discourse in this country. All of this while scorching reputations, ruining lives and bending the facts to fit the narrative every step of the way, as “The Loudest Voice” constantly reminds us.
Each episode focuses on a pivotal year in Ailes’ career — although the first, titled “1996,” begins on a “Sunset Boulevard” note, with Ailes lying dead on the floor in 2017 and Crowe as Ailes saying in voice-over, “I know what people are gonna say about me. I can pretty much pick the words for you: ‘right wing,’ ‘paranoid,’ fat.’ ”
Quick cut to the mid-1990s, when Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney) hires Ailes to launch the Fox News Channel.
Ailes has a gift for spotting raw talent — he hires an Atlanta radio host named Sean Hannity (Patch Darragh) after he watches a tape of Hannity on a local TV program and mutes the sound to confirm his instincts Hannity “pops” visually — but he’s despicable in one-on-one interviews with female job candidates.
“If you’re going to be on the air, you’re going to have to fight for that… and be prepared to go all the way,” Ailes says to an interviewee — and it gets worse when he tells her twirl around, touches her face and says, “You have got some beautiful eyes… how do you get on with your dad?”
What. The. Hell.
Episode 2 is set in 2001-2002 and shows Ailes taking charge on the morning of 9/11, marshaling the wall-to-wall coverage and exhorting his staff to rise to the moment, as this will be a defining moment for the country and for Fox News. (“The Loudest Voice” never disputes Ailes’ television acumen.)
Meanwhile, Ailes’ wife Beth (Sienna Miller, doing typically strong work), who prides herself on being a good, old-fashioned, All-American wife and mom, is either clueless or willfully ignorant about her husband’s sickening personal conduct.
Annabelle Wallis turns in heartbreakingly powerful work as Laurie Luhn, a longtime Fox staffer who is literally sickened when Ailes commands her to meet him in a hotel room on numerous occasions but feels powerless to do anything about it. Naomi Watts is equally memorable as Gretchen Carlson, who was subjected to Ailes’ sexism for years and yet found the strength to tell him exactly what he could do with that “twirl for me” garbage.
Through Episodes 3 and 4, set in 2008 and 2009, Ailes’ already sizable megalomania somehow balloons even bigger, as his raging animosity for the Obamas has him encouraging hosts to spread unfounded rumors about Michelle, brushing aside concerns about facts and fairness voiced by some traditionally trained news execs. He notes reporters and anchors should refer to the Democratic nominee and eventual president as “Barack Hussein Obama,” knowing full well that middle name would have a trigger effect on more than a few loyal Fox viewers.
“You’re not worried about pushback?” says a Fox News exec in a telephone conversation.
“No, it’s respect, like Martin Luther King,” replies Ailes, who waits until the call is completed and then grumbles, “Or John Wayne Gacy.”
As we said at the top: hardly nuanced.
Nor is it subtle when we get repeated low-angle shots of Ailes clomping down the hallways of Fox News Channel with all the grace of Michael Myers in “Halloween,” or when we can actually see the spit flying from Crowe’s mouth in an Ailes tantrum scene.
But given all we know about Ailes, even the loudest moments in “The Loudest Voice” might well contain essential truths.