Roger Ailes, the late Fox News chief and one of the most consequential figures in the history of media, saw and used two seemingly incompatible sides of television. A traditionalist entertainer who came up in the industry at “The Mike Douglas Show,” Ailes rooted himself in certain rock-solid fundamentals of attracting and retaining audience attention; a forward thinker driven by ambition and rage, he also pushed the medium to new heights of flash and new depths of contempt, meeting a segment of his cable audience where it was and pushing them yet further. He was the mind that created, and that animated, a network that is at once cable’s most popular and something more powerful still: The ideological engine behind the contemporary Republican party.
It makes for a fascinating character, and — one might expect — a potentially intriguing character study. Certainly, on “The Loudest Voice,” Russell Crowe is putting in the work, spewing invective from behind obscuring prosthetics that cut off actorly expressiveness in favor of emphasis on not merely the bulk of Ailes but his quivering fury. And yet Showtime’s new limited series about the career and impact of Ailes, provides only half of the man’s equation. The old-school showmanship is there: This looks and feels like an old-school miniseries, with heft signaled through portentous pauses, starry supporting players, and an attention to detail that can be equated with a serious attempt to be definitive, to get this story right. But what’s lacking is what might make the series match its subject: The boundary-pushing verve and cruel wit that to this day makes Fox News so toxically watchable for so many, the poisonous insight that television news can be something more than edifying.
Produced by, among others, “Spotlight’s” Tom McCarthy and based on the reporting of Gabriel Sherman of New York magazine and now Vanity Fair, the series moves through Ailes’s life in key moments, beginning in 1996, when he was fired from the NBC News organization. (He’d been the president of relatively staid CNBC, though he still boasts about hiring “Money Honey” Maria Bartiromo, then founder of a talk-focused forerunner to MSNBC.) His departure coincided with avaricious and canny Fox chieftain Rupert Murdoch (played here by Simon McBurney) realizing the impact he might be able to grab for himself through TV news; soon enough, a leader whose hands had been tied somewhat by financial news was loosed upon a medium for which the watchword had been stability of format. Ailes’s mind is vastly ahead of his contemporaries — we see him, in an early conference, indicating that which a 2019 viewer will already know well, that Fox’s success will depend on its deep appeal to a narrow slice of the viewership.
A problem, here, is that Ailes is indeed so far ahead of his time — and thus so in line with ours — that even casual media observers are unlikely to find his observations novel or enlightening. Part of the promise of a biographical story is that somehow, some way, the characters we know from headlines will come to seem real and to surprise us. Ailes, whose playbook audiences know well enough, can startle in his work through degree: He’s obsessively involved in Fox News, which he builds in the image of his politics, his willingness to be self-consciously divisive, and his libido. (Watching in a control room, he sees an early Fox News anchorwoman in a demure pantsuit, and shouts “I like legs!,” a moment whose lack of finesse matches the network’s eventual, rather obvious visual playbook.) But he never surprises us in substance. That he, say, is motivated by hatred of the left (especially Barack Obama), by paranoia, and by lust as dominance (or vice versa) is plainly evident to anyone who’s watched what his network airs during its nighttime opinion block.
And in his personal life, conducted with gross and abusive indulgence and disregard, Ailes quickly comes to seem that most toxic thing to drama: Utterly predictable. His neglect of his wife (Sienna Miller) yields little, and while his chewing-up of his mistress (Annabelle Wallis) at least feels noteworthy as an attempt to grapple with an abuser onscreen, it also feels dramatically inert. Ailes does what he does because he can; he’s a true believer in power politics, whether practiced on the national stage, in the competition between networks, or in interpersonal dynamics, and that belief brooks no counterargument, nor any modulation. He attracts true believers, as do all demagogues: Most notable is Fox News’ relentless former PR chief Brian Lewis, if only because he’s played by Seth MacFarlane, who in real life shares corporate real estate with Ailes’s network as a creator and star on the Fox broadcast network. (Well, one thinks watching him in this scabrous and unstinting look at Fox News, at least for now.)
Amidst a trail of victims and a crowd of boosters comes something more complicated: A figure who both wants Ailes’s professional approval and cannot abide his cruelty. (For most, the two seem inherently impossible to untangle.) Gretchen Carlson, after years at Fox, alleged sexual harassment by Ailes, and the controversy ended his career. But when we meet Carlson (Naomi Watts, in shaky accent and uncertain bearing even as she’s playing a smoothly hypercompetent Miss America), her presence feels something less than epochal. To get where she’s going, we have to, early on, watch Carlson play the familiar role of another person for Ailes to abuse, thoughtlessly and by rote. Ailes is a master of onscreen narrative who can’t, or won’t, see himself. And the show, unblinking though it is, can’t crack his lack of reflectiveness, making us suffer with Carlson and company through hours’ worth of the attempt.
That fundamental sameness of Ailes through his life, elevated by success but never developing the shades that make a person seem real, is practically as limiting to Crowe as is his makeup. The latter aspect of the story creates a surreal scrim between Crowe, who certain looks heavier but also looks plasticine and inhuman, and the audience. (Stranger still is the decision to shroud Miller, a gifted performer, in similar prosthetics: Why cast her at all if you’re going to hide her, and why bother working so hard to make her resemble Beth Ailes, a person who’s nobody’s idea of a famous face?) That the script can’t find an angle in on the “why” of Ailes and thus keeps on stating, more forcefully each time, the “what” holds Crowe back yet more. Small moments — as when, say, he tells his son about a moment of abuse in his childhood — come to feel like they must be “Rosebud” clues to crack the case of this Citizen Kane figure, if only because otherwise, his story has no dramatic energy, with endless indulgence replacing an arc.
Ailes’ is, perhaps, the archetypal biography of a white American heterosexual man born in the first half of the twentieth century: He is both convinced that the world is his birthright and motivated by fear that it will somehow be stolen from him by interlopers. But that’s a thesis, not a story. That the series is written by Oscar-winning McCarthy feels strange; his “Spotlight” was distinguished by its scrappiness, its ability to spin out fascinating angles and character moments out of the laboriousness of reporting. Assaying a much bigger journalistic operation and one that is more comfortable in the shadows than was “Spotlight’s” Boston Globe, McCarthy can’t find his way towards an insight. But then, that film was a portrait of complicated heroes crusading against a rotten institution; “The Loudest Voice” has at its center such an institution, led by an uncomplicated villain. For all Ailes’s was a consequential life, “The Loudest Voice” fails, in its early going, to make the argument that it was one that could support a story.
“The Loudest Voice.” Showtime. June 30. Seven episodes (four screened for review).
Cast: Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts, Sienna Miller, Seth MacFarlane, Simon McBurney, Annabelle Wallis, Aleksa Palladino.
Executive Producers: Tom McCarthy, Alex Metcalf, Jason Blum, Marci Wiseman, Jeremy Gold, Liza Chasin, Kari Skogland, Padraic McKinley.