Credit where credit’s due: The Loudest Voice, Showtime’s seven-part miniseries about the rise and fall of Fox News chairman/alleged chronic sexual harasser Roger Ailes, is dedicated to living up to its name. From the moment that Russell Crowe’s jowly, handsy version of the political consultant-turned-conservative kingmaker shows up in a diner, predicting how his epitaph will read — “right-wing, paranoid, fat” — you have the distinct feeling you are being yelled at. And not just by the Oscar-winning actor, though he does unleash hell via a variety of high-volume bellows, blowups, screaming temper tantrums and a tyrannical 4 a.m. “pep talk” to his troops. It feels like this adaptation of Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 book is constantly inches away from your face, waving its finger as spittle flies from its frothing mouth. Judging from the four episodes given to the press, it’s designed to be one deafening screed of a series. That doesn’t mean, however, it’s an insightful one.
Like Citizen Kane, this blustery biodrama (which premieres on June 30th) starts with its main character’s death; the sound of pundits chattering away in the background is its equivalent of a Rosebud. We flash back to 1995, when Ailes was dismissed from CNBC regarding a Human Resources investigation. Luckily, this frees the media macher to give Rupert Murdoch (theater legend Simon McBurney, all reptilian watchfulness) a 24-hour infotainment channel to rival CNN. But Ailes refuses to do just another “Clinton News Network.” He wants to give conservatives their own platform and the public a constant stream of fear and loathing. “People don’t want to be informed,” he says. “People want to feel informed.”
The Loudest Voice follows Ailes while he assembles a murderer’s row of talent and behind-the-scenes players, including PR exec/henchman Brian Lewis (Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane) and a shock jock named Sean Hannity (Patch Darragh). He brings on Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis) as a booker before blackmailing her into performing sexual favors and coercing her to recruit her “replacement”; soon, she’s a PTSD-stricken embodiment of how this man turned everything into a power play. It highlights his vulgarity (“Who ordered the pussy masala?” he snickers after interviewing a female Indian candidate) and extreme paranoia. It shows us how his wife, Beth (Sienna Miller), matched his Machiavellian streak, if not his appetites. And it demonstrates how, after 9/11, Ailes began to beat the war drums louder for Bush II. He also takes on a more populist bent. starting with an insistence that a presidential candidate be referred to as “Barack Hussein Obama.” Soon, Ailes is declaring it’s time to “make America Great again” and a certain reality-TV celebrity/birtherism advocate starts to appear more regularly on the walls of TV monitors.
By the time Ailes’ bête noire shows up in the form of Gretchen Carlson (Naomi Watts at her most brittle), we’ve already been battered by a lot of amped-up bad behavior and obvious signposts regarding the decline of civilized discourse. In the spirit of its subject, subtlety is not on the menu. It’s all frontal assault. If the miniseries can’t impress you, it will damn well steamroll you into submission.
The problem is, aside from the pleasure of watching celebrities impersonate famous Fox personalities, there’s not a lot of takeaway past the car-wreck fascination of witnessing one horrible man ruin lives and livelihoods. It’s a lot of sound and fury signifying one thing only, over and over again, all glazed with a tabloid patina of power, corruption and perversity. Better to view this as a star vehicle for Crowe, who digs into this grotesque role with gusto. No amount of fat-suit prosthetics can keep him from reaching phone-throwing levels of rage and channeling top-shelf rancor. If the idea is to glean lessons and drama from Ailes’ story, The Loudest Voice is a bust. If the idea is to eventually win Crowe an Emmy, however, consider this a fair and balanced success.